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A Playoff Hit

by Cory Wright / New York Islanders

Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck’s importance to the Islanders isn’t measured by how much they play, but rather when they play.

They were Jack Capuano’s first choice after Kyle Okposo gave the Islanders a 1-0 lead on Sunday afternoon and drew a penalty almost immediately. They’re usually also his first choice after a goal against. Paired with ample minutes on the penalty kill for Cizikas and Clutterbuck, the Islanders’ fourth line combines for some the most important shifts in hockey.

“Every time we score or get scored on, we’re kind of half over the boards,” Martin said.

“We take a lot of pride in that,” Cizikas said. “When he calls our name to head out there after a goal for or against, that’s either to keep the momentum or to try to get the momentum back on your side.”

An energetic, physical start was crucial for the Islanders in Game Three. They needed an answer for the Capitals physicality in Game Two and had to break Washington’s momentum.

Enter Martin, Cizikas and Clutterbuck.

The trio had a fantastic first shift, coming out like three bulls, honing in on anything with red, knocking Capitals off pucks and into boards. The collisions injected life into the Islander bench and the Nassau Coliseum stands, as the sellout crowd roared after each hit. The Islanders outshot the Capitals 16-5 in the first period.

“That got us going right from the get go,” Capuano said. “Every time they stepped on the ice, every time there was a body thrown, the crowd was up on its feet and you can feel the energy on the bench.”

Martin (eight), Clutterbuck (seven) and Cizikas (three) combined for 18 hits Sunday. The final hit count was 44-43 Islanders, but the physical game didn’t feel that close, largely because of the atmosphere and tone set by the energy line.

“They know their role and responsibility,” Capuano said. “They aren’t a fancy line, they are a meat-and-potatoes line. I know as a defenseman for the opposition, that’s a tough line to play against because they chip pucks, make you turn and they’re coming. They have good sticks, play physical and they grind it out.

Don Cherry heaped praise on the line in January, calling them the toughest line in hockey. Martin and Clutterbuck finished first and second in hits this season and have lead the league for a combined seven years.

What makes the line so effective is their commitment to grinding down opponents and playing a simple game at both ends.

"Not only are they physical, but they can skate,” John Tavares said. “That allows them to get on the forecheck and be physical and create turnovers and get back on the backcheck and play that hounding style. It's one thing to be physical, but to be able to skate like that is crucial. Certainly, they can provide offense. They make plays."

Chipping in offensively is a bonus, but not out of their reach. They combined for 24 goals this season and Clutterbuck has one in the playoffs. Clutterbuck is the most natural scorer of the three, having scored 19 goals in 2010-11 and at least 10 in every full season except this one. He has deceptive speed – which led to two shorthanded goals this season – and a hard, quick snap shot, which tends to get overlooked.

“Just his release and how hard the shot is, it definitely is underrated,” Cizikas said. “He’s had some opportunities this year where he’s hit a post, or hit a guy in front or just missed. I think he’s poised to put up some more.”

The goal for this line is still to hit first, but Cizikas said that style leads to their offensive chances and a lot of black and blue for the other team.

They play the right way and that’s why they’re successful,” Capuano said.

It’s also why they’ll be the first ones out after a goal.

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