Casey Cizikas wears his black eyes proudly.
The Islanders center has had his fair share of shiners, stitches and cuts, but such is life for a feisty 5'11 forward who makes his living the hard way. Not many players take the same type of pride Cizikas does in his defensive role and being a sparkplug for the rest of the team.
"No player wants to play in their own zone and I think it takes a different mindset to be willing to go out there and battle your butt off in the D-zone," Cizikas said. "My coach in junior, he told me, 'you're not going to make the NHL as a goal scorer; you're going to be one of those energy guys out there that works extremely hard' and he kind of drilled that into my brain from day one."
Cizikas has been an effective two-way forward for the Islanders over the past five seasons, but the Islanders bet there was still room to grow for the 25-year-old, signing him to a five-year contract extension. Cizikas, who radiates a carefree attitude off the ice, conceded that there's some pressure with the new deal, but it's motivating him to start the season.
Video: TBL@NYI, Gm4: Cizikas lays a big hit on Carle
"I want to come out here and prove to everybody that for five years I'm going to give it all that I have," Cizikas said. "I am going to leave it all out on the ice and do whatever it takes to help the team out. No matter what position I'm put in I'm going to try and exceed at that and be the best player at that role."
With the raised expectations, Cizikas has raised his game early in the season. He's the top penalty killer on the league's top penalty kill, averaging 3:28 of shorthanded icetime per game, while the Islanders have gone five straight games without allowing a power-play goal. He's been the Islanders' best fac-eoff man, winning 50.5% of his draws. He's averaging a career-high 14:49 TOI and has three assists in six games.
"As his role expands, his ability to play to that role will follow," said Cal Clutterbuck, who's played nearly exclusively with Cizikas for the past two seasons. "He's good enough to do that, so I think with more opportunity comes more production for him because he's a good player."
His offensive instincts are showing through as well. He's still looking for his first goal, but his radar has been up for pinching defensemen. He set up Dennis Seidenberg's first-period goal against Arizona, carrying the puck into the zone, spotting Seidenberg and feathering a pass between two Coyotes. He made a similar heads-up play, spotting a pinching Nick Leddy in the Isles season opener.
Video: ARI@NYI: Seidenberg beats Domingue over the blocker
"He has the offensive ability and the offensive instincts to make plays," head coach Jack Capuano said. "If you look at Casey's junior career and his World Championships, he's put up numbers."
Cizikas scored 126 points (54G, 72A) in his last two seasons with the Mississauga-St. Michael's Majors in the OHL and was a solid point producer in the AHL, scoring 66 points (25G, 41A) in 83 games with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. He's reached career-highs every year in the NHL and is coming off a 30-point campaign last year, so there are some skills in those hard-working hands.
Of course, a few pretty passes won't change the way Cizikas approaches the game, which is simple, energetic, and defensively responsible and earns him the odd black eye.