By Jeff Capellini
During the final 30 minutes of Game 2 on Friday, the Islanders got kicked around the rink inside the Verizon Center. The bigger Capitals imposed their will, eventually evening the teams’ opening-round playoff series by sheer force.READ MORE: Suspected Human Remains Found In Florida Wildlife Preserve Where Authorities Are Searching For Brian Laundrie
The Islanders learned from the body blows they received because they came out on Sunday and made it clear they would no longer be intimidated by physicality.
And as a surprise to absolutely no one, their fourth line was in the middle of it all, setting a tone that ultimately led to two periods of utter domination by the home side. Though the Caps eventually tied the game in the third, the Isles used the body to push back late and that momentum carried over into overtime, where John Tavares decided that he didn’t care if you were still on a long bathroom line, scoring the winning goal just 15 seconds into the sudden death period.
The Islanders came out like guided missiles to begin Game 3, launching themselves at everything that moved. And you’d be foolish to think they won’t try to continue that style of play with a potential 3-1 series lead on the line when the puck drops Tuesday night at Nassau Coliseum.
“We just want to get the crowd involved, get out there and bang some bodies, make sure everybody on the ice is aware you’re out there,” a rather understated Cal Clutterbuck said following the Isles’ rousing win on Sunday.
Once called the best fourth line in the NHL by longtime “Hockey Night in Canada” analyst Don Cherry, Clutterbuck, Matt Martin and Casey Cizikas — when healthy — set the kind of tone that few teams can reproduce.
Islanders coach Jack Capuano is often criticized for playing his fourth line a lot more minutes than a fourth line usually deserves, but it’s hard to argue with the results. Time and time again this season, that unit provided the Islanders a spark that led to a win.
“They know their role and responsibility, and to me they are a tough line to play against,” Capuano said. “If you are the opposition, especially if you are on the back end playing for the Caps, you know those guys are going to chip pucks and they are going to come. Again, (they create) not only energy for our team and the chances that they get, but especially in the building with the 16,000-plus we had in there tonight.”
Next to Tavares, they are the closest thing to rock stars this team has, which is kind of funny when you consider fourth line guys aren’t used to getting a lot of attention.
But the trio has been the backbone of the Islanders, a team that cannot succeed unless it gets production from every line and defensive pairing.
“I think we are relied upon a lot to be physical and provide that energy all season long. That’s our job,” Martin said. “(The Capitals) are a big, physical hockey team, so I think it’s emphasized even more with the way they play that we have to go out there and do that.”
Martin and Clutterbuck, who finished first and second, respectively, in the league in hits during the regular season, had a combined 15 of the Islanders’ 44 hits in Game 3. Cizikas. the smallest of the three, earns his money on the forecheck and ragging the puck. The line’s early work along the boards got the attention of Capitals coach Barry Trotz, as he lamented during his press conference how much his team was stuck in its own end over the game’s first two periods.
Capuano made it clear during his meeting with the media that the Isles had some concerns about their toughness during the 4-3 loss in Game 2, a game in which they blew a pair of two-goal leads. That was also part of the reason he chose to scratch enigmatic Michael Grabner, who is much more of a finesse player, in favor of the rugged Tyler Kennedy, who was a clutch playoff performer with the Pittsburgh Penguins for several seasons.READ MORE: New York City Mayoral Candidates Eric Adams, Curtis Sliwa Meet For First Debate
Capuano said he liked how Kennedy plays with “grit” and “desperation,” two things needed on the intangibles end to survive a potential seven-game war against a division rival. Kennedy had three shots on goal and a hit in his 8:51 of ice time Sunday.
HALAK PROVING TO BE VAST UPGRADE
When the Islanders last made the playoffs, following the lockout-shortened 2012-13 regular season, they were huge underdogs against Pittsburgh in the first round. Yet they went toe-to-toe with the Penguins before losing in six highly-contested games.
A lot of people said then the Isles might have won that series if they had better goaltending, but veteran Evgeni Nabokov struggled mightily, posting an astronomical 4.44 goals-against average and woeful .842 save percentage in the six games.
To be fair, not all of it was his fault. The Islanders’ defense that season was a major work in progress and it struggled to control the Penguins, who rolled Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, James Neal, Jarome Iginla and Pascal Dupuis — not to mention some offensive-minded defensemen — with impunity.
Nabokov played what turned out to be his final season with the Islanders in 2013-14, posting a 2.74 GAA and .905 save percentage in 40 appearances. Around that time it also became painfully obvious that youngsters Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson just weren’t ready to assume the starting role.
So general manager Garth Snow went out last May and acquired the rights to Jaroslav Halak, and eventually signed him to a four-year contract. The initial return on the investment was good, as the 29-year-old netminder from Slovakia finished with a team-record 38 wins this past regular season.
Yet Halak’s 2.43 GAA and .914 save percentage — solid but by no means elite by today’s standards league-wide — made some believe he might not be the type of goalie who can be a difference-maker in a playoff series, despite the fact that he’d had postseason success in the past.
However, through the first three games of this series with the Capitals, Halak has a 2.01 GAA and .929 save percentage, coming up especially big in the third period on Sunday when the Caps made an expected push.
“Guys were really good blocking shots and our PK was good,” Halak said. “We need to keep playing the same way.”
Tavares is a superstar and several young and talented forwards may be poised to become household names, but it’s getting more and more evident that the Islanders will only go as far as their goaltending, defense and physicality take them.
So far, so good.MORE NEWS: Mayor De Blasio Announces Vaccine Mandate For All New York City Municipal Workers, Including First Responders
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet