3. Another strong performance by the fourth line
The New York Islanders fourth line has been called “the best fourth line in hockey” for many years now. Considering the generally short shelf-life of fourth line NHL’ers, it’s astounding how long they’ve been able to keep that moniker relevant.
However, the Islanders’ identity line’s performances during this season have at times raised eyebrows for the wrong reasons. The veteran bottom-six trio did not seem like themselves for much of the team’s first ~10 games.
The trend was unsettling, especially considering the term and money tied up in the group. With Matt Martin being extended for four more years this offseason and Clutterbuck eating up $7 million of cap space over this season and the next.
The Islanders, after all, still have salary-cap concerns for this coming offseason, and Casey Cizikas, the linchpin of hockey’s best fourth line, is among a group of Islanders free agents to-be in the summer of 2021. He’s also perhaps the most likely of the crop to not be in Blue and Orange next season, considering the names in that group.
I don’t think you should be criticized for questioning Matt Martin’s ability to retrieve dumped pucks and bang bodies into his age 31 season and beyond. That’s often a hard way to make a living as an over-30 NHL’er.
I certainly did a double-take upon seeing his new contract this offseason, and there were fans mad at me for it. But, in these last couple of games, he’s been as reliable as anyone.
Clutterbuck, now 33, has appeared less effective in his role over the last couple of seasons, and Cizikas has always struggled to stay healthy.
All that said, the fourth line’s performances over the last two games have been encouraging. Their forechecking has been formidable, and they’re playing with the old tenacity we saw from them in their glory days.
And that’s totally no-selling Cizikas’s beauty of a goal that got the Islanders on the scoresheet in the first period of Thursday’s action. An absolutely mesmerizing effort scored while the Islanders 4C had one skate blade to the ice.
Cizikas skated like he had a rocket strapped to his back every time he hit the blue line for a forecheck. Martin and Clutterbuck weren’t far behind. Time and time again over the last couple of games, this trio has found ways to disrupt teams’ breakouts, lean on their defensemen consistently, and force mistakes.
That’s their game. It’s simple, but it’s brutally effective when executed properly. The question, I think reasonably so, should still remain: How long can they continue to do this effectively on a night-to-night basis? For now, they’re still pumping out solid bottom-six performances, though, and that has been huge for the Islanders of late.
Dal Colle, and other Miscellaneous Thoughts
Michael Dal Colle’s draft position and lengthy development process have made him a frustrating topic for Islanders fans over the last couple of years. But, it seems like the former fifth overall draft pick from 2014 is finally starting to find a bit of footing in the big leagues.
Dal Colle has only recorded two points in five NHL games during 2020-21, but he’s actually finding ways to be effective without getting on the scoresheet every night. Notably, Dal Colle’s willingness and ability as a player who goes into the corners regularly has been impressive for a player of his draft stock. He also broke up a number of plays through strong back-checking on Thursday.
Obviously, it would’ve been nice to get more out of that fifth overall pick, but Dal Colle is filling a role on this team, and he’s found some decent chemistry with Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle as linemates.
That new-look Islanders second line got caved in at times during Thursday’s action, and they were far from perfect. But, for as often as they were stuck in their own zone, they did a good job of keeping Pittsburgh out of the dangerous, high-percentage areas on the ice, and got some good looks of their own, leading to a team-high xGF% of 70.96% among Islanders lines who played more than 1:30 at 5v5.
The Islanders bottom defensive pairing featuring Noah Dobson and Andy Greene seemed to struggle pretty bad lately. Greene’s performance on the left side of that pair has lacked all season, but up until the last five or so games, Dobson has been able to not let it affect his performance too much.
It’s gotten to a point where changes should probably be made, or at least considered, though. Dobson is 21-years-old and already developing into a very solid young NHL defender, but when his D partner is struggling as Greene has it can put a lot of undue pressure on a young man.
That’s not to say Dobson has been perfect, he of course still has a lot to learn about playing at the top level. But I don’t think it’d be fair to call him the one making the majority of the messes on that pairing either.