If the New York Islanders were not in enough trouble given their 3-1 series deficit in the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, it got worse when they lost two players to season-ending injuries. Playing without Casey Cizikas is a big blow as he played in every postseason game before being ruled out for Game 3. New York also lost Tom Kuhnhackl to injury, and both players left the bubble in Edmonton. Let’s look at the impact this will have on the Islanders’ playoffs.
Cizikas is one of the most important players on the Islanders. Without him, head coach Barry Trotz has been forced to shuffle his bottom-six forwards. While Jean-Gabriel Pageau is an excellent replacement on the best fourth line in hockey with Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck. New York had to change their third line to Derick Brassard, Leo Komarov, and Ross Johnston. Surprisingly, that line played exceptionally well in Game 4.
Cizikas, who scored 20 goals last season, is an offensive threat. However, his most significant impact is on the penalty kill. He has been terrific in shorthanded situations for most of the decade. Without him, Trotz must use players like Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey on the penalty kill. Even though both players are more than capable of killing penalties, it limits their five-on-five ice-time.
Cizikas is also one of the best Islanders in the faceoff dot. The Lightning won 59 percent of faceoffs in Game 3, and that trend continued in Game 4 when the Islanders won only 38 percent of faceoffs and struggled to produce any offense. This is the second major injury for Cizikas this season, whose leg was cut by a skate in February which led to the move for Pageau at the deadline.
Kuhnhackl started the postseason on the left wing with Pageau and Brassard but had been a healthy scratch since the Qualifying Round against the Florida Panthers. The veteran forward is known for his strong defensive game but contributed offensively with a pretty assist in Game 2 against the Panthers.
Kuhnhackl was also another penalty killer when he was dressed but it’s his playoff experience that the team will miss most. He won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017 and is well-liked in the dressing room.
“They both mean a lot to our team, it’s not just one or the other,” defenseman Nick Leddy said on the injuries to both players. “It’s very tough. You never want to see a guy get hurt. The biggest thing is a next-man mentality. We need guys to step up in our locker room and I have faith we’ll do that.”
Should the Islanders have any more injuries in the postseason, a player like Otto Koivula could get a shot if they can come back in the series. He is the lone extra skater that plays center and looked sharp in a couple of games during the regular season but does not have any playoff experience. Once again in Game 5, the Islanders will likely play their stars in Barzal and Nelson a little extra with the team facing elimination. Barzal played 22:40 in Game 4 and will likely see even more ice-time if New York is down in their next game.
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The hope is that the injuries don’t end up being too serious, as there will be a shorter offseason. However, if Cizikas does end up missing significant time, the Islanders are going to have to look to replace him before the start of 2020-21 as he enters the final year of his five-year contract. Kuhnhackl will be a free agent at the end of this season.
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