On Tuesday morning, Barry Trotz was asked about the impact of his fourth line in Sunday's 5-1 win over Tampa Bay.
The amicable coach was a little defiant, pausing before delivering his response:
"Which one is that?" Trotz asked.
Clearly, the question was about the Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck trio, who combined for six points in the win, but what's not clear is if they should still be referred to as a fourth line. Sure, they take their line rushes last during warmups, but that might be routine more than rank, as their contributions have exceeded the expectations of a fourth line.
"We always talk about them as the fourth line, but they are a very useful line for us," Trotz said. "They give you impact. When they are playing the right way, they give you a little of that bite that you want. They give you sort of that determination and speed on the puck and sort of an Islander identity. If there's a line that's sort of an identity line, well that's the best way to describe them better than a fourth line because they give us an identity."
Video: TBL@NYI: Clutterbuck finishes smooth passing play
From 2014-16, that identity was built around their physicality, when Martin and Clutterbuck hit everything that moved, but they've evolved to become an effective checking and energy line for the Islanders. Trotz likes their work ethic and that they play with - as the coach likes to say - skin in the game.
This year, they're providing some offense as well. Cizikas has scored a career-high 11 goals halfway through the season, while Martin and Clutterbuck have combined for eight. In total, the line has combined for 19 of the Islanders 132 goals, approximately 14%. Not bad, given it's their secondary responsibility to keeping other teams in check and providing a spark.
"We've been getting plenty of chances and we're all playing pretty good shutdown games," Martin said. "We got some pucks in, got some turnovers and led to some pretty good opportunities for us and we capitalized on them."
Trotz has shown a lot of trust and confidence in the Cizikas line. All three are averaging over 10 even strength minutes per game, while Cizikas and Clutterbuck both contribute around two minutes shorthanded per game. The coach routinely starts his energy line in games and is now matching them up against other teams top lines. That trust has emboldened Martin, Cizikas and Clutterbuck, who saw a lot of matchups against Tampa Bay's top players on Sunday and took key defensive-zone draws against the Jaden Schwartz-Brayden Schenn-Vladimir Tarasenko line on Tuesday. Cizikas also started overtime for the Islanders against the Blues, while Clutterbuck led all forwards with 17:46 TOI.
Video: TBL@NYI: Cizikas nets Martin's feed to extend lead
"For me, it's probably the best situation I've been in, in my career in the terms of the type of role that we're playing and the important minutes that we're playing," Martin said. "When you're out there starting games against team's top lines and constantly out there against them, it makes you feel more important and makes you feel like you have a bigger role."
That's especially refreshing for Martin, who experienced the opposite last season in Toronto when he was healthy scratched often in the second half. Martin said Trotz has given him added confidence this season, but Trotz said he thinks the relationship works the other way.
"Your body language, your interactions with the players and how you use them, they read into that a little bit," Trotz said. "Sometimes they read into it too much and it affects their game, but anytime you have confidence in your players - the players give you the confidence as a coach. When they give you the confidence, you just sort of give it back."