During that torturously long first season before the ballyhooed arrival of Denis Potvin as the new Bobby Orr, the New York Islanders served as hockey's answer to another cast of expansion rejects that had once disgraced the Big Apple—the Amazin' Mets. Trouble was, the original Islanders could not calm their critics, including all those haughty Ranger lovers in Manhattan, by feeding them a dose of Casey Stengel's gibberish. One can only imagine, after another of those 9-1 Metsian routs that the Islanders suffered about once a week, how convenient it would have been to have Ol' Case laying down a verbal smoke screen for the press. "Now this game here, with my Amazins, you see, when I was born, which I was before they invented the puck, the slap shot was illegal because of the spitter, and they...." But since there was no Stengel, the Islanders could only suffer. And oh, did they suffer.
"Hapless was the word," groans General Manager Bill Torrey, remembering the first year. "The Rangers play the hapless Islanders tonight. The Bruins get a breather against the hapless Islanders. Les Canadiens rout hapless Islanders. Cripes, I thought hapless was the only word in the English language." But Torrey cannot dispute the accuracy of the adjective; the 1972-73 Islanders were indisputably the worst team in the history of the NHL until the Washington Capitals appeared this season. The original Islanders won only 12 games, a record low, and lost 60, a record high, and along the way yielded a record 347 goals to the opposition. Worst of all, they finished 72 points behind the Rangers.
For being so hapless, though, the Islanders were rewarded with the No. 1 choice in the NHL's 1973 amateur draft. Resisting several attractive trade proposals, Torrey selected the sturdy Potvin, who had acquired a reputation as "the next Orr" while breaking all of Bobby's records in the Ontario Hockey Association. "Hold it," Potvin said. "I don't want to be the second coming of Bobby Orr. I want to be the first Denis Potvin." Identity problems aside, Torrey knew that Potvin would do for the Islanders what Orr had done for the Bruins. That is, Torrey knew Potvin someday would wipe the smirks from the faces of all those people who had ridiculed the Islanders so regularly in their first year. Particularly those smug Rangers, who had charged the Islanders an indemnity of almost $8 million, including interest, for invasion of their territory. What Torrey didn't know was that Potvin would do it so quickly.
In just two seasons the 21-year-old Potvin has emerged as the No. 2 defense-man in the game and, better still, has helped convert the Islanders from wretched losers to respectable winners. In a town where Brad Park of the Rangers was once compared favorably to Orr, it is now Potvin whose name is linked with the Boston star. And it was Potvin, not Park, who led all Campbell Conference defensemen in the voting for this year's midseason All-Star Game. In fact, when someone recently asked Potvin how it felt to be playing in the shadow of Park in New York, he answered dryly, "I didn't know I was." Last year Potvin easily bettered the rookie records of both Orr and Park as he led the Islanders in scoring, with 17 goals and 37 assists. So far this season he again leads the Islanders, with 20 goals and 50 assists, and Boston's Orr and Carol Vadnais are the only defensemen who have more points.
More important, thanks mainly to Potvin and Billy Bow Tie, as Torrey is called, the Islanders have shed their image of haplessness.
After beating Kansas City and Chicago and tying Vancouver and Minnesota last week, the Islanders, age three, trailed the Rangers, age 48, by just two points in the Patrick Division race for second place behind Philadelphia. Overall, the Islanders owned the sixth-best record in the NHL, ranked a strong third in the goals-against column, led the league in penalty-killing statistics and—chuckle, chuckle-had lost two fewer games than the Rangers. Now, if the Islanders and the Rangers can maintain their relative positions ahead of the fourth-place Atlanta Flames during the last two weeks of the season, they may even be squaring off against one another in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Despite their impressive record, the Islanders have been unable to defeat the Rangers in any of their four head-to-head confrontations this season, managing only a 1-1 tie at Madison Square Garden.
"We know we're better than the Rangers," says Potvin. "We're younger, stronger and better. For some reason, though, we have too much respect for them. We treat them like gods. I guess we really have a bit of an inferiority complex, probably because we believe too much of what we hear and read about them."
Around Madison Square Garden the sudden success of the Islanders has prompted even the most diehard Ranger sufferers to question the managerial widsom of Ranger Coach and General Manager Emile Francis, whose team has not won anything in almost 35 years. It is bad enough that Dr. J and the New York Nets, who share the Nassau Coliseum with Potvin and the Islanders, probably would destroy the Knicks in a basketball game. Now this?
As always, the Rangers have a long list of excuses to explain their predicament. Injuries, of course. So far the Rangers have lost 240 man-games because of 22 different injuries, including a back fusion, two broken legs, two broken ankles, one cracked hip socket, nine separate knee disabilities and wounded pride. In fact, only two Rangers, Steve Vickers and Bill Fairbairn, have played in every game. The Rangers also moan that bad calls by the referees have cost them a few defeats. And now there is a new complaint: bad ice at Madison Square Garden. For sure, the Garden skating surface over the years has earned a reputation as the worst in major league hockey—soft and too deeply rutted to lend itself to smooth skating or crisp passing. However, as Buffalo's Richard Martin said after the Sabres whipped the Rangers at the Garden, "The ice is the same for both clubs, isn't it?"
Valid or not, excuses are only good on a season-to-season basis. What bothers the expense-account crowd at the Garden most of all is that the Islanders seem to have a roster loaded with promising young players such as Potvin, Billy Harris, Clark Gillies, Bob Nystrom, Dave Lewis, Andre St. Laurent and Bob Bourne, while onetime promising young Rangers are playing for Pittsburgh (Syl Apps Jr.), or Los Angeles ( Mike Murphy and Tommy Williams), or Philadelphia (Moose Dupont), or Atlanta (Curt Bennett) or Buffalo (Don Luce). "I'm afraid that Francis traded the wrong guys," says one traded Ranger. "He should have kept the guys he traded and traded the guys he kept. Wait and see, the Islanders will win the Cup before the Rangers."