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This is a story for the tabloids. It features a psychic, an inspirational return, some Sinatra, people-page personalities, a cute, cuddly creature, a black-and-white file photo, lost canines that get found, frenzied mobs and things that didn't happen that people swear happened. As the defending Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders met the New York Rangers, Cupless for 43 years, in the best-of-seven Patrick Division finals, the New York dailies dealt restraint a hard body check into the boards, HOCKEY HYSTERIA! roared the New York Post.
At least one thing is fit to print: When the Expressway Series had finally played itself out last Friday night with the Islanders winning 5-2 in Game 6, they had kept alive their dream of winning four consecutive Stanley Cups. And, make no mistake, winning four straight Cups—Montreal set the record by getting five in a row from 1956 to '60—has obsessed the Islanders throughout a season that has been, by their standards, mediocre. That very obsession may have been the root of their mediocrity. So eager were the Islanders to stake a claim to immortality that they became less a hockey team than a bunch of historians.
"We wanted to be like Montreal was six years ago when they only lost eight games," says Left Wing Bob Bourne, the unlikely hero of the series with the Rangers. "But things just started to fall apart." Although the Islanders had the league's stingiest defense during the regular season, their attack sputtered. They struggled to finish second behind Philadelphia in the Patrick Division and tied for sixth overall with a 42-26-12 record. The Rangers, meanwhile, had gone 35-35-10 in their second year under Herb Brooks, the Olympic Goldfinger of a coach. But last season's late rush seemed to have promised more. It took a remark by Philadelphia Coach Bob McCammon, who had described the diminutive Ranger forwards as "Smurfs" before their opening playoff series, to inspire New York past the Flyers. Still, inspiration alone wasn't going to beat a team as big and strong and deep as the Islanders, even with three of their most physical players, Bryan Trottier, Clark Gillies and Dave Langevin, hurting.
The 3-foot-tall, powder-blue, smirking Smurf decked out in a Ranger jersey at the Nassau Coliseum for Game 1 on April 14 was very cute. Less cute was how an Islander fan had fit the stuffed doll with a noose and was brandishing it as he paraded up and down the aisles. Very acute was how the mock hanging foreshadowed the 4-1 thrashing the Islanders were to give the Rangers.
Bourne had been playing left wing in Gillies' stead on a line with Duane (Dog) Sutter and Duane's younger brother, Brent (Pup) Sutter, since Gillies, who would not appear in the series, went down with a knee injury just before the end of the regular season. None of the three had had an excellent year, and their union shouldn't have filled the Rangers with fear. "Guys laugh at us in practice because we handle the puck like a grenade," says Bourne. But he broke open a 1-1 game by assisting on the next three goals, including one apiece by the Sutters. BOURNE-AGAIN CHAMPS BURY RANGERS, punned the Post.
The next night the Islanders were what Gillies would call "the best I've seen in 10 years." Even though their spiritual leader, Trottier, was out with a sprained left knee, the Islanders outshot the Rangers 47-23 and breezed to a 5-0 victory. Once more the Grenadiers led the way. Sutter, D., got his first NHL hat trick; Sutter, B., had a goal and an assist; and Bourne had another three assists. "We're a western Canada type of line," said Bourne afterward. (He's from Saskatchewan; the Sutters are from Alberta.) "Nothing fancy. If a guy's open, you give it to him. Sometimes a good player will wait for somebody to come at him before making a pass, but we pop it to the open guy right away. We don't do a lot of thinking out there."
With 36 seconds left in Game 2, the strains of Frank Sinatra's rendition of New York, New York, a Ranger anthem, wafted through the Coliseum. Given the time, place and score, this seemed a gratuitous slap at the Rangers. As it turned out, the song had been wired into the sound system by an electrician acting alone. Nevertheless, Brooks was incensed, and he demanded a postgame audience with Islander President and General Manager Bill Torrey. "We've got a good rivalry going here, but stuff like that opens deep wounds," said Brooks. Torrey apologized, FAST-LANE ISLES TURNING EXPRESSWAY INTO RUNAWAY, blared the Daily News.
Then the Islanders hit a bottleneck. In Game 3 at Madison Square Garden—45 miles by expressway, tunnel and Manhattan streets, from the Coliseum—the Rangers scored five times to rout Islander Goalie Billy Smith, who'd shut them out for more than 114 straight minutes. The Rangers beat his understudy, Roland Melanson, twice more. Into the third period they went, seemingly in cruise-control, ahead 7-2. But the Islanders struck for four goals, including two with a man down, and appeared to tie the game with :07 remaining when the red light acknowledged a Mike Bossy shot. Referee Bruce Hood, however, had blown his whistle after losing sight of the puck in the scramble in front of the net a moment earlier. The Rangers escaped 7-6, but their third-period collapse augured poorly for Game 4. DEATH-DEFYING FINISH, screamed the Post.
On the following night, though, Ranger Goaltender Eddie Mio, a puckish fellow with a British rocker's 'do, hurled a shutout against the Islanders for almost 59 minutes of Game 4. He stopped 36 shots with an array of Rockette-style kicks and Gil Hodges glovework. Mio did this despite being knocked, unprovoked, on his coccyx in the second period by Duane Sutter. Around the six-minute mark of the final period, with the Rangers leading 3-zip, the organist struck up New York, New York. O solo Mio. Game: 3-1. Set: 2-2. EXPRESSWAY TIE-UP, roared the News.
Islander Coach Al Arbour wasn't going to panic. His club had gotten the shots it had wanted against Mio, he said, but simply couldn't put them by him. Further, throughout the series the Islanders had been doing the things that had characterized their performance the past three years in postseason play: killing penalties ruthlessly (they offed 83.9% for the series) and handling the puck with dexterity on the power play (they converted 30.4% of such opportunities). As the Islanders went home for Game 5, their main concern was getting Trottier back into the lineup. His absence had disoriented Bossy, a linemate. LET'S GET IT ON! drooled the Post.