This first round series should feel a little different for an Islander fan.
No it’s not that the team doesn’t have home ice, which they had back in 2019. Or that they’ll be without Anders Lee — whom they’ve had their past two postseason runs. Nor is it that only 50% will be allowed in the Coliseum for games three, four and if necessary a game six.
No what is hard to comprehend is that the club’s fourth line — the “Identity Line” made up of Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin— isn’t one of the main storylines going into the opening series with the Penguins.
Outside of 2013 when Clutterbuck had yet to join the Isles, every year the Islanders have qualified for the postseason this decade the fourth line was always a talking point for the critics and analysts. That trio had gained a reputation of being a nightmare to play against in the regular season and how they would take that and bring it to an even higher level come playoff time. In 2019 against those same Pens, despite not putting up any points, they flexed their muscles at both ends of the ice and hit everything that moved.
But that was then, this is now.
The threesome are older — Clutterbuck is 33, Martin is 31 and Cizikas is 30 — and they’ve put a lot of wear and tear on their body playing in head coach Barry Trotz’s system the last three seasons. They also weren’t as effective in the regular season this year as opposed to the past with just 36 points combined, and that came with all three being relatively healthy the entire year.
— Rob Taub (@RTaub_) March 20, 2021
Expecting them to turn back the clock (yes I used that phrase) and go balls to the wall when the puck drops Sunday afternoon might be asking much more now. In fact, you should expect the Pittsburgh’s fourth line trio to receive a lot more shine.
As The Athletic’s Penguins beat writer Josh Yohe said a few days ago they could be the an x-factor.
“Teddy Blueger. This is a fine hockey player who was born to thrive in the playoffs. He presumably will have his favorite winger in Brandon Tanev back by his side. That will help. Blueger is very good defensively and has emerged as a real threat to score while shorthanded. Nothing can break a team’s back like a playoff shorthanded goal, and Blueger is just the kind of player who can deliver such a blow.”
Blueger is young and hungry. So are Tanev and Zach Aston-Reese, the final member of that trio. They have those same tendencies that have made the Isles’ fourth line so good for all these years. So it’s not one to think the Islanders themselves won’t have their hands full with them.
Obviously the Islanders are not the favorites (shocking I know). And sure we can tally that up to offense and whatever other facet. But the advantage of each club’s fourth line can’t be forgotten. We know this series is going to be a grind for both sides. That’s the kind of style the Islanders’ fourth line feeds off. But this time feels different as they are in the background of sorts.
There will plenty of things to be discussed from the Islanders’ as game one approaches. Except for the fourth line. As much as they are respected and revered by their team and around the league, the chatter has shifted elsewhere.
Follow Rob on Twitter at @RTaub_