Cizikas led a two-on-one rush into the Toronto zone with Michael Grabner, but had the play broken up as Leafs defenseman Cody Franson slid through the passing lane, pushing the puck to the corner. The rookie center darted to retrieve the puck, absorbed a hit along the boards and found Visnovsky for a top-shelf blast. The defenseman’s goal gave the Islanders a 2-1 lead.
“I had to make up for that missed opportunity,” Cizikas said of the broken pass. “It wasn’t the prettiest play but I stuck with it and the puck was still there. Lubo had a great shot from the point. I just kept working hard and grinding away at it, and when you do that, good things will come. That’s what I try to bring to my game night in and night out.”
Cizikas’ grinding style has already made him a fan favorite, especially now that his hard work has translated onto the score sheet with three points (one goal, two assists) in his last four games. But it’s not just Cizikas’ hard-nosed, never-give-up style that makes him so valuable to the team.
Islanders Head Coach Jack Capuano dissected the game tape later to find another element of that breakout play that should not be overlooked.
“What I like to do is go back and see how that chance started,” Capuano said. “It started on our breakout from our defensive zone and how Casey was underneath the puck. He took the right route and when you do that, good things happen. If he doesn’t come back and do the right things, he doesn’t get that opportunity. That solid defensive play directly led to the offensive chance at the other end.”
Cizikas’ line – which included Grabner and Colin McDonald Thursday but has also included enforcer Matt Martin, is relied upon to create a spark and frustrate other teams’ top lines. It’s natural to refer to the trio as the “fourth line,” but Capuano is quick to correct those who use that term, as Cizikas’ unit is trusted with ice time in important situations.
“We rely on that line for energy. They do the right things – they finish their checks, they get pucks deep. They all know what their role is on the hockey team. I’ve been pleased to see them work hard and get rewarded lately on the score sheet.”
Against the New York Rangers on Feb. 14, Capuano went with Cizikas’ line to start the second period with the team trailing 2-0. Cizikas battled for a loose puck and set up Colin McDonald from behind the net for a goal 29 seconds in, sparking a turnaround that led to a 5-4 shootout win.
At 5’11, 187-pounds, Cizikas doesn’t intimidate with his size, but takes pride in outhustling opponents to win 50/50 battles and being a pest on the ice.
“I try to be the hardest working player every shift. It doesn’t matter who I’m out there against, I’m always going to try and outwork them in all three zones. That’s what it takes to be a dominant two-way player, which is what I’m striving to be. I want the coaching staff to trust me in all situations, and know that I’m not going to be outworked by other teams’ top lines.”
The rookie center (he entered the 2012-13 season with 15 games of NHL experience) was a healthy scratch for two of the Islanders first five games this season. He has been in the lineup for 15-of-16 games since, scoring his first NHL goal on Jan. 29 at Pittsburgh. Cizikas – who turned only 22-years-old on Wednesday – typically sees between 9-12 minutes of ice time each night, but those minutes have come in clutch situations. He’s taken key faceoffs in the defensive zone and seen a considerable amount of time on the penalty kill. Cizikas uses the experience of having to watch games from the press box as well as the reward of playing heavy minutes as motivation.
“It’s tough being a healthy scratch for games,” Cizikas said. “You just want to do anything you can to get in the lineup. If that means playing 4-5 minutes, you’re going to do that, and you’re going to work hard when you do. The past few games when I’ve been in the lineup, I think I’ve done a good job of staying in and doing my part to help the team be successful.”
What makes Cizikas’ line effective is controlling the play and cycling pucks deep to prevent scoring chances the other way. Understandably, faceoffs in all areas of the ice are an instrumental part of that equation. The Toronto, ON native worked tirelessly in AHL Bridgeport (where he played 31 games earlier this season) in the circle and continued his education at Islanders Training Camp in January, learning from experienced veterans such as Marty Reasoner and Assistant Coach Doug Weight.
“Casey works on faceoffs every day in practice,” Capuano said. “We don’t have a whole lot of practice time, but at the end of practice, he’s always working on it. He takes a lot of pride in that. He’s taken some big draws, especially after goals. It’s important for us to get the puck and win that territorial battle.”
“When we were in camp at the beginning of the year, I actually asked Marty for some tricks on my forehand side, because I had been struggling there a lot,” Cizikas said. “That was one of my weaknesses, and I feel like now it’s a strength.”
With faceoffs, as with everything else, Cizikas strives to be the best. It’s that aggressive attitude that has gotten him where he is today. It’s also the same mindset that Capuano says needs to be tapered off at times, especially in his own end.
“He’s aggressive, and sometimes in the d-zone, less is more,” Capuano said. “He has to make sure that he stays on the defensive side of the puck. I love the aggressiveness, but there’s a time to contain as well. Sometimes over-committing you can get beat off the wall with a quick skilled player or a guy who is bigger and stronger than you. The more experience he gets, the more he’s starting to understand how he has to play to be successful.”
As Cizikas gets older and puts more games under his belt, that mindset will become second-nature. If he catches on to that lesson the way he has with others, he’ll be frustrating opponents for more than 12 minutes a night.
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