The 2013-14 season was a major setback for the New York Islanders. Just one year after their first playoff appearance in six seasons, the Islanders posted a 34-37-11 record and finished last in the Metropolitan Division.
But there was one positive to be gleaned from that disappointing season: the discovery of a hyperphysical fourth line. The trio remained intact as the Islanders returned to the postseason last season. And this season, the line of Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas has put the entire league on notice.
"If the other team is starting to get any momentum," said Cizikas, "that's when we look at each other and say, 'This is our time to step up, this is our time to get the guys going and get the momentum on our side.'"
The line does that by providing energy and hitting. So much hitting, in fact, that Martin and Clutterbuck rank first and fourth in the league with 96 and 84 hits, respectively. Meanwhile, Cizikas ranks 23rd.
"We just realized this is what we need to do," Martin said, "this is what's not only going to make us effective but make our team a four-line team and make us an effective hockey club."
When Clutterbuck was acquired from the Minnesota Wild during the summer of 2013, he appeared to be a natural fit with Martin. He had already established himself as one of the league's hardest and most consistent hitters, having led the NHL in hits for three consecutive seasons between 2008-09 and 2010-11.
"Obviously my reputation precedes me," Clutterbuck said, joking.
His reign as the NHL's hit king was halted in 2011-12 by Martin, who has led the league in hits every season since, a four-year run that has established the 6-foot-3 winger as an important spark plug for the Islanders. He set an NHL record last season with 382 hits, a mark he is on pace to top this season.
Martin found a kindred spirit of sorts when Cizikas became an Islanders regular in 2012-13.
Their stalls sit side by side in the locker room, and the two Ontario natives have similar hockey backgrounds. Each drafted in the middle rounds by the Islanders, they both learned a valuable lesson early in their respective careers that would pave their paths to the NHL.
"When I started playing in junior, my coach told me I wasn't going to make it as a skill player," Cizikas said. "He kind of brought in a different element to my game: the right way to play on both ends of the puck, kind of be that energy guy, be the hardest worker out there. I think that was huge for my career."
Playing out a disappointing 2013-14 season that went south when captain John Tavares was lost to a torn MCL suffered during the Sochi Olympics, Clutterbuck, Martin and Cizikas each got their coaches' attention. The Islanders finished that season with an 8-2-2 run, and although the three forwards weren't yet skating together consistently, they did provide energy and four game-winning goals during that stretch.
The trio was officially formed the next season and has been kept intact ever since.
"They're skilled players that have great intensity. They're real leaders," said Islanders great Bryan Trottier, who saw plenty of the line last season as an assistant coach with the Buffalo Sabres. "They've got a lot of responsibility. They can take two minutes and make something happen. They're kind of like throwbacks, in that they're hungry."
Trottier became especially enamored with Martin and Cizikas during his time working with the Islanders' player-development team. He is thrilled to see how they've developed into hardworking NHLers.
"I've been a fan of both of them since the Islanders drafted them," Trottier said. "The message I had for them back then was that what you do from here on in is all up to you. These kids just grabbed a hold of it and said no one is going to outwork them."
In the threesome's first full season together, the Islanders returned to the playoffs, where they were ousted in seven games during an exciting first-round series against the Washington Capitals last spring. They even scored three goals, two by Clutterbuck, in a series that saw the Islanders occasionally struggle to score.
Martin and Clutterbuck also finished first and second, respectively, in hits last season. It is a feat they appear likely to repeat in 2015-16.
But the line's aggressiveness might have never been more on display than during the Islanders' 2-1 win against the New Jersey Devils on Nov. 3. The Islanders registered 63 hits in that game to establish a league record. Martin led the team with nine hits in what on the surface appeared to be a whole other level of physicality.
For the Islanders' checking line, it was another day at the office.
"Honestly, it just felt like another game," said Cizikas. "I didn't even know how many hits we had until after the game. That's definitely something special. We're just going to keep trying to do that every game."
That one line consistently provides this kind of physical element is impressive. That it is able to do so in the manner NHL games are played today is astounding.
With the league cracking down on high and blindside hits in recent years, a clear line of demarcation has been drawn. So it's an accomplishment in itself that Martin, Clutterbuck and Cizikas have continued to be so physical without gaining a reputation for dirty play.
Since Clutterbuck's arrival, the trio has received one league-imposed suspension -- a one-game ban to Martin for kneeing Trevor Daley then of the Dallas Stars on March 3. Clutterbuck earned a fine for diving during a game against the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 19.
"Part of being reliable is being disciplined, and for the most part, we're pretty disciplined as a line -- even though we go out there and bring that physical edge," Martin said. "There's a fine line, and you have got to stay within the rules and try to be effective in that role and not be a liability for your team."
It's abiding by this mindset that has made the line a formidable force on an Islanders team looking to get past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 1993. Any team that gets in the way of that objective is sure to see Martin, Clutterbuck and Cizikas coming.