Due to injuries, New York Islanders head coach Lane Lambert has had to alternate his lines like a game of musical chairs. With the loss of Oliver Wahlstrom on Dec. 27, Mathew Barzal’s linemate for 30 games, there were concerns with how the Islanders would fill that void.
Lambert had gone to two wells, which we here at NYI Hockey Now dove into Thursday morning.
Barzal’s Play With Wahlstrom
The duo of Mathew Barzal and Oliver Wahlstrom played 30 games before the 22-year-old Wahlstrom left after just one shift against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 27.
Over those 30 games, when these two were on the ice, the Islanders outscored their opponents 15-3 and were sound defensively, per NaturalStatrick.com.
But, as usual, statistics only tell part of the story.
Barzal and Wahlstrom each scored just three goals at even strength, with production from the backend playing a focal role in that lopsided offensive production. Not to mention, Barzal went scoreless in their first 12 games together.
What was the problem?
Despite Wahlstrom’s understanding of what he had to do in the defensive zone, he still needed to grasp how to play with Barzal. We all know that Barzal is a facilitator and a puck possessor. When in transition and especially when crossing over the opponent’s blue line, Barzal uses his speed to attract the opposition and his edge work to evade their attempts at stealing the puck.
While Barzal is doing that, he usually doesn’t need a teammate right beside him for support. He needs a player who can find the open space he creates and take advantage.
That’s why it has been so difficult for a player to stick with Barzal because he is difficult to read.
And Wahlstrom took up space in the offensive zone rather than using the space Barzal created to his advantage.
Wahlstrom is out indefinitely with a lower-body injury, but his absence hasn’t negatively impacted Barzal.
Actually, it’s been quite the opposite.
Barzal’s Comfortability With Cizikas
After New York Islanders head coach Lane Lambert teetered with Mat Barzal’s winger, he has settled with Casey Cizikas, and the results have been outstanding.
In these five games, 39:19 minutes, the Islanders have scored four goals when these two have been on the ice, allowing none.
Barzal has six goals and two assists over these five games, while Cizikas has a goal and three assists. Cizikas has assisted on two of Barzal’s six goals, while Barzal has the primary assist on Cizikas’s tally.
But let’s forget statistical production for a second, despite it being the most important thing.
Cizikas understands how to play with Barzal–plain and simple.
“You kind of follow him up the ice, and you try to find an area where you know he’s gonna be able to get you the puck, and you give him a yell, you give him a holler, if he thinks he can get it there, he’s gonna try, and that’s the biggest thing,” Cizikas said.
“Like I said before, the way he’s dominating the play with the puck, the way he’s controlling it and making the other team as uncomfortable as I’ve seen in a long time, he’s a fun guy to play with when you’re doing that.”
The fourth-line center-turned-winger is one of the few players on the Islanders that seems to be able to keep up with Barzal while also anticipating his moves.
There’s no better example than Cizikas’s goal against the Vancouver Canucks.
Cizikas helps restock the toy department after the holidays!
And Parker Wotherspoon with his first NHL point! pic.twitter.com/xg7e4yZtWJ
— Isles on MSGSN (@IslesMSGN) January 4, 2023
Cizikas saw Barzal moving from West to East and filled the lane correctly. As you saw, Barzal didn’t even have to look up, showing trust and chemsity that Cizikas would be in the right place.
Another advantage Cizikas provides for Barzal is that he is a legitimate NHL center and it shows. He understands positionally where to be which led directly to Barzal’s goal in the 4-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers as Cizikas picked off a Oilers outlet pass in the neutral zone.
Bailey to Barzy and it's 5 straight games with a 🚨 for Mat!! pic.twitter.com/3AcbvFZ7FV
— Isles on MSGSN (@IslesMSGN) January 6, 2023
Is Cizikas a long-term answer for Barzal?
That would be a no.
Cizikas is a bottom-six forward and general manager Lou Lamoriello needs to provide him with a top-six winger if the Islanders will have any success going forward.
But while the New York Islanders remain down three forwards, Casey Cizikas has stepped up alongside Mathew Barzal, playing center at times and taking face-offs too, which has taken some pressure off of no. 13.