“Scars or no scars?” the makeup artists asks us as Matt Martin sits down to be prepped for his AQ photo shoot. Martin laughs. “It’s going to be tough to cover all these up.”
Below the right eye resides a stitched-up reminder of a fight with Tanner Glass under his right eye. Remnants of a skate cut requiring 18 stitches still peek out from Martin’s lower left jaw. Even lacerations from friendly fire make the always-changing map of Martin’s face.
“This I got from a collision with Cizikas’ helmet,” Martin says referring to his linemate, Casey Cizakis that has generated additional stitches and a playful vendetta. “I’m definitely going to get him back for that one,’’ Martin promises.
Make no mistake, Martin’s face is more than that of an NHL tough guy, it’s a face quickly becoming synonymous with a New York Islander team that is experiencing a youthful renaissance.
Martin, a 24-year-old left wing brings to the team a hybrid skill set that seems to be coming into Vogue in the NHL—a strong young player who can drop the gloves, pestering opponents and has a knack for scoring big goals. Along with frequent linemates Casey Cizikas and Colin McDonald, Martin exemplifies the approach the Islanders bring every night—work hard, create opportunities and never relent.
“I like to be a difference maker, a factor every game,’’ Martin says. “More than anything, I want to bring energy through physical play. I don't look for fights. They have a way of finding you. I want to go out and make teams know that I'm on the ice.”
A fifth-round draft pick by the Islanders in 2008, Martin was a top scorer (and teammate of Steven Stamkos) with the Sarnia Sting – netting 35 goals in the last of three OHL seasons. As a pro, he’s on a constant mission to use his 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame to hold opponents accountable and drop the gloves when the need arises. (He holds an NHL record—374 hits— set during the 2011-12 season.
“I knew if I wanted to make it to the NHL, I’d have to bring more than scoring. In my case, that’s being a player other teams hate,’’ Martin says with a smile. “I always played with that edge and improved my game physically every year. That comes naturally now.”
Martin’s proclivity to battle and drive to the net has drawn comparisons to Mr. Islander – Bobby Nystrom, another player who was fearless on the ice, but also scored perhaps the greatest goal in Islander history, an overtime winner giving the franchise their first Stanley Cup win in 1980. Martin has won the namesake award—for best representing “hustle, leadership and dedication”—the past two seasons.
“I love the way Matt plays because I tried to bring it every night and he definitely does that,’’ says Nystrom, who has remained on Long Island since his playing days and now works in the insurance business. “He’s a physical player and fans can relate to that. Any time you hit or spark the team with a fight, it helps get the boys going. And Matt scores big goals too.”
Martin takes pride in the honor, especially following a season in which the resilient Islanders reached the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and pushed the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins to six games in the opening round.
“We really learned as a team what it takes to have success in the NHL, how much of daily process it has to be,’’ says Martin, a native of Windsor, Ontario. “Our coaches gave us confidence about midway through the season when they made us realize that we have to start playing like the playoff team we are.”
Having experienced the playoffs for the first time, he can only imagine what it was like when the Islanders led by Nystrom, Clark Gillies, Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier won 19 straight postseason series three decades ago.
“It must have been crazy. Four Cups in a row!’’ Martin muses. “And it’s even more amazing how close those guys still are and how much they care about each other and the team. We’re the same way now.”
The current Islanders are led by Hart Trophy finalist John Tavares, three-time 30-goal scorer Matt Moulson and young talent such as forwards Kyle Okposo and Michael Grabner and defenseman Travis Hamonic.
Martin says the club’s convivial atmosphere was another important factor in their ability to win close games. It’s an element that augers well as the Islanders seek to build on their 2013 success amid heightened expectations.
“We’re a tight knit group and we’ve endured tough times. So the success we’re having means a lot because we’re achieving it together,’’ Martin says. “I remember before Game 3 against Pittsburgh – my first home playoff game – sitting in our locker room with a towel over my head. We could hear the “Let’s Go Islanders” chants through the walls. The energy of the moment was unforgettable.”
It will have to remain unforgettable. It won’t be long before the Islanders relocate the franchise to Brooklyn, a borough that prides itself on its survival of the fittest mentality. The echoes of championship seasons from the Nassau Coliseum’s past will be silenced forever. And though the banners may move from the Nassau Coliseum to New York City, but it will be up to Martin and his resurgent teammates to keep the championship Islander spirit alive.