Enemy at the gate
The '84 Islanders-Rangers clash was unforgettable
Posted: Monday July 16, 2007 12:14PM; Updated: Tuesday July 17, 2007 11:03AM
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Ah, rivalry. Does anything heighten suspense and shave more years off your life than the prospect -- heck, the reality -- of your favorite team going down at the hands of its arch-nemesis in a game that really matters?
Overshadowed by such mega-rivalries as Red Sox-Yankees, Michigan-Ohio State, and Duke-North Carolina, the Rangers and Islanders have conducted much bitter, heated and thrilling business during the past 35 years. It was in this cauldron that Game 5 of the 1984 Patrick Division semifinals played out.
Growing up in the shadow of Nassau Coliseum, I came to love the great Islander teams like no others before or since in any sport. They had enormous talent and even greater heart. Place a skate on their necks and they would find a way to get up and beat you at your own game. The Rangers, well, I considered them a monumental annoyance: good enough to beat the Isles, but never good enough to go all the way after doing the dirty deed. The 1983-84 edition of the Broadway Blueshirts, coached by Miracle on Ice maestro Herb Brooks, was a more than formidable opponent.
After losing the opener, the gritty Rangers took the next two. They had the Isles on the brink and down 1-0 late in Game 4 in the howling maelstrom of Madison Square Garden before John Tonelli and Brent Sutter scored to force the decisive game. The Game 5 crowd included the usual mix of Ranger fans bellowing "Let's Go Rangers!" while Islander fans retorted "1940!" -- a reference to the Blueshirts' 44-year Cup-less drought. The series had worn me out and the very idea of the hated Rangers killing my team's Cup run (dubbed "The Drive for Five" after four consecutive championships) on home ice was horrifying. More than once I begged my Maker for lithium.
When Ron Greschner put the Rangers up 1-0 in the first period, I contemplated the abyss until Isles sniper Mike Bossy stole the puck from Tom Laidlaw and fired home the equalizer with 11 seconds left. I breathed just a bit easier through the intense but scoreless second period. Aside from Laidlaw's misplay, the Rangers were keeping Bossy, Bryan Trottier and the other Islander guns at bay without their captain, defenseman Barry Beck, who had been lost to Pat Flatley's crushing hit in Game 4.
Tomas Jonsson gave the Isles a 2-1 lead with 12:04 left in the third period, but the Rangers, as usual, kept coming with feverish determination. The final minute crawled by like it had been imported from The Twilight Zone. Islanders goalie Bill Smith dropped to his knees and blocked a shot. The rebound popped straight up, about shoulder-high on Rangers forward Don Maloney, who batted it into the net with 39 seconds left. The Islanders claimed high stick, but the goal stood.
It was a sickening, dreadful wait for overtime, where furious end-to-end rushes kept the crowd in a constant roar. The Isles were barely hanging on and their dynasty flashed before my eyes when Smith left a rebound and a yawning net for Mikko Leinonen. The crowd gasped ... and Leinonen fanned as the puck bounced over his stick blade.
In my mind's eye, I can still see Tonelli pry the puck loose along the left boards in the Rangers' end and send it skidding cross-ice to Ken "Wolfman" Morrow at the right point. The lanky, bearded defenseman teed up a shot that found its way past goalie Glen Hanlon at 8:56. There was a beat of silent disbelief as the red light flashed. Then the Coliseum exploded in utter, deafening bedlam. The Isles poured over the boards and mobbed Morrow, who had scored all of three times that season. It was his only goal of the playoffs.
I screamed myself hoarse and dizzy before stowing my last shred of dignity and dancing a jig in the aisle with a security guard. The sense of relief was almost as great as my joy, but over time I came to marvel at how courageously each team had played. It's the measure of a great game when you can sincerely salute a team you loathe for its heart and skill.
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