UNIONDALE, N.Y. - Playing top-line minutes in the American Hockey League and checking in at a height of just 5’10, rookie forward Casey Cizikas knew he’d have to show physical toughness to make his presence felt throughout the league. Cizikas accomplished that goal, playing larger than his size and posting larger numbers than perhaps some expected, while earning an AHL All-Star Game appearance and his first NHL stint.
Cizikas’ physical toughness on the ice was clear to players and fans around the AHL. However, it may have been his mental toughness off the ice that allowed him to succeed in his rookie campaign.
“Last year was definitely a mental roller-coaster,” Cizikas said. “I dealt with so many emotions last year…I didn’t know what to expect. With the young team we had in Bridgeport, Tommer (former Sound Tigers head coach Brent Thompson) brought us together as a family.”
Although Cizikas posted a solid 20 points in his first 33 games, the rookie forward flourished in January with 18 points in just 11 games as the Sound Tigers finished the month without a regulation loss. Prior to January, the Sound Tigers struggled to a 2-10 mark in December. Cizikas and his teammates knew that despite the poor record, success was not far off.
“When we went through that bad stretch in December…it was definitely tough, but we knew we were close to turning it around,” Cizikas explained. “After Christmas we went on that incredible run. December was really tough mentally, but it made us stronger as a group.”
After the team’s struggles to finish the 2011 calendar year, Cizikas posted 31 points in just 18 games through the rest of the regular season with the Sound Tigers. Cizikas was rewarded with his first NHL call-up to the Isles where he notched four assists in 15 games.
“Getting that call to the Islanders was amazing,” Cizikas said. “It’s great to know that if you play well, you’ll get rewarded. It added a boost to my mental confidence and definitely made me a stronger player.”
Cizikas’ first NHL stint came less than a year after making the jump from the Ontario Hockey League to the AHL. The difference in skill levels between the leagues was clear to the Toronto native, but he drew parallels as he progressed through the ranks.
“I think at the time (the jump from league to league) felt similar,” Cizikas explained. “Going from juniors to the AHL was definitely difficult physically because you were playing against teenagers in the OHL. Now, you’re playing against men that are bigger and stronger. Those first few months prepared me for that jump to the NHL. Again, the guys are bigger, stronger, and smarter. That experience opened my eyes to how much harder you need to work to become a full-time NHLer.”
Cizikas rejoined the Sound Tigers for their playoff series against the Connecticut Whale after the conclusion of the Islanders regular season. The Sound Tigers ran into a hot Whale goaltender in Cam Talbot and eventually lost the series despite regular season success against their in-state rivals.
“We had high expectations for ourselves,” Cizikas said. “I didn’t know what to expect heading into the playoffs… it was kind of a bad dream while it was happening. You go in with such confidence, and before you know it, your season’s over. I learned how hard it is to play professional playoff hockey and how much you have to give of yourself to your team to be successful.”