Fast hands always claim their share of victims. In subway cars, from which a rider departs light his billfold; on city street corners, where a passerby is flimflammed by the three-card-monte man; in junior high schools, where a girl recalls Friday night's date with a mixture of horror and delight. It is one of life's rules of thumb, so to speak: never trust a fellow with fast hands.
Hockey is also part of life—albeit a small one—so the axiom holds true there, too. When Mike Bossy, the New York Islanders' sad-eyed, fast-handed right wing, pops up in front of the net with the puck, someone is going to be victimized—namely the opposing goaltender. It happened 53 times last season, when Bossy was the National Hockey League's Rookie of the Year. And sophomore slump be damned, at the midpoint of the 1978-79 season it has already happened a league-high 35 times again. Like the pickpocket, Bossy isn't overpowering, and you seldom realize he is even there. But then Bossy darts in from the deep slot, or cuts in from the wing, takes a pass and snaps a shot goalward with a handball player's reflexes and a putter's touch.
"I hardly ever look when I take a shot," he says. "I don't look for a goalie's weakness. If I shoot it quickly enough, it doesn't matter where he's strong or weak, it will end up in the net."
All told, in 114 professional games, Bossy's shots have ended up in the net 88 times, a .772 goal-scoring percentage. Bossy's rate is higher than Bobby Hull's, Phil Esposito's and Guy Lafleur's. It is higher even than that of Cy Denneny, who leads the NHL in that somewhat obscure department with a .767 percentage, which he achieved in the '20s with the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins.
True, the 21-year-old Bossy hasn't yet withstood the test of time. But then, no one has ever had such a jump on it. If he continues at his current pace, Bossy will score 70 goals this season, and if he has a hot streak he could challenge the single-season record of 76 goals set by Esposito in 1970-71. That year Esposito scored his 35th goal in his 39th game; Bossy scored his 35th in game No. 40 last Wednesday night in Detroit.
Thanks in part to Bossy's torrid start and that of his linemates—Center Bryan Trottier, who leads the NHL in points with 73 and has scored 32 goals himself despite a professed aversion to shooting the puck; and Left Wing Clark Gillies, who has 16 goals and 41 assists—the 7-year-old Islanders have the best record in the NHL. They beat Los Angeles and Atlanta last week, and tied Detroit and Philadelphia, and at week's end had lost only five times in 42 games. Montreal has lost nine games. Boston eight. The Islanders are leading the NHL in scoring, averaging nearly five goals a game—a pace that will bring them close to the record 399 goals scored by the Esposito-Orr Big Bad Bruins of 1970-71—and are second in fewest goals allowed, 109 to Montreal's 107.
The Islanders have the most productive power play in the league, scoring on nearly one of every three chances (Bossy alone has 14 power-play goals), and they have the second-best penalty-killing record, stopping better than four of five power plays.
They haven't lost a game at home all season (17 wins, four ties), and one of their goalies, Glenn (Chico) Resch, currently has a 23-game unbeaten streak. They are closely knit, from the general manager (Bill Torrey) to the coach (Al Arbour) to the fourth-line center (New York-born Richie Hansen). The Islanders are young but experienced, the only rookie regular being Left Wing John Tonelli, who played for two seasons in the World Hockey Association. And in 25-year-old Denis Potvin, the Islanders have a defenseman capable of controlling the entire flow of a game.
For New York, it has been the sort of year in which Potvin could bellow to a stunned and glum dressing room last week after the Islanders had blown a 5-2 lead over Detroit with less than four minutes to play, "Hey, you win some, you tie some!" But you do not lose. In short, the Islanders believe they will end Montreal's lordly three-year reign as the Stanley Cup champion. Lofty hopes, indeed, for a team that was humiliated in last spring's playoff quarterfinals by Toronto. "We're a better team because of it," says Torrey, the man of a thousand bow ties. "We've matured. We were due for a bad playoff after four good ones."
In that series, the Maple Leafs disrupted the Islander attack—especially the big Bossy-Trottier-Gillies line—with hard-hitting, rough, often dirty hockey. The feeling was, and in some minds still is, that the Islanders lacked not only enough muscle up front, but they also needed more aggressiveness from their players with muscle, particularly the 6'3", 220-pound Gillies. The acquisition of an enforcer was anticipated, but no such move was made.