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Last week, for the fourth time in as many years, Denis Potvin, captain of the New York Islanders, hoisted the Stanley Cup above his head and started on a victory lap, trailed by a mob of jubilant teammates. The Islanders had just beaten the Edmonton Oilers 4-2 to complete a sweep of the best-of-seven playoff finals and establish themselves as one of the greatest hockey clubs in history.
New York used the same formula in the clincher that it had in the first three games of the series. The Islanders scored early—three goals in a 1:37 span in the first period—and then relied on disciplined checking and Billy Smith's goal-tending to make the lead hold up. "I don't think any team has ever played better in its own end than we did this series," says New York General Manager Bill Torrey. Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky never got a goal, and the explosive Oilers spent the series playing catch-up. Edmonton was ahead only once in the four games and never led at an intermission.
By winning a fourth straight Cup, the Islanders join some pretty select company. Besides New York, the only major pro franchises to win four or more consecutive titles are the Boston Celtics (1959-66), the New York Yankees (1936-39 and '49-54) and the Montreal Canadiens (1956-60 and '76-79). And how do these Islanders compare with the teams of those two Canadien dynasties? "Right now I'd love to play them for a lot of money," says Torrey, who grew up within walking distance of the Montreal Forum and remembers both teams well. "The game is different than it was in 1956-60. That team's offense was more concentrated. Ours is spread out."
Indeed, during the 1982-83 playoffs, discounting power-play and shorthanded goals. New York's first line ( Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy and Anders Kallur) scored 17 goals, its second line (Brent, Duane Sutter and Bob Bourne) 21 goals and its third ( Bob Nystrom, Butch Goring and John Tonelli) 18. That sort of balance is insurance against injuries, and the Islanders had more of those in this season's playoffs than either of those notable Montreal teams ever had.
The '56-60 Canadiens packed their offense into two lines and had the league's premier checking unit for its third line. The Richard brothers, Maurice and Henri, played with Left Wing Dickie Moore on the first line, while the second unit featured Center Jean Beliveau and Right Wing Bernie Geoffrion. All five are in the Hall of Fame. The defense was anchored by Doug Harvey, who won seven Norris Trophies in eight years as the NHL's top defenseman, and Tom Johnson, who got the Norris the only year that Harvey didn't. In goal was Jacques Plante. Toe Blake was coach.
The similarities between those Canadiens and the '80-83 Islanders far outweigh the differences. Potvin is the modern equivalent of Harvey, Bossy of the Rocket, Trottier of Beliveau, and Smith is the best playoff goalie going today, as Plante was in his era. Both clubs had superb special teams. Montreal's power play was so potent that it prompted the NHL to change its rules to allow a penalized player back onto the ice as soon as the other team scored. For their part, the Islanders have led the league in postseason power-play goals every year they've won the Cup. As for penalty killing, the 1960 Canadiens allowed only one goal in 29 chances during the playoffs. Against the Oilers, who had the NHL's top power play this season, New York gave up one goal in 20 opportunities.
The 1976-79 Canadiens, with Scotty Bowman behind the bench, were built around three defensemen, Goaltender Ken Dryden and the high-scoring line of Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt and Jacques Lemaire. "I defy anyone to find a troika on defense like Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe at their best, and Larry Robinson at his flaming best," says Montreal Gazette writer Red Fisher, who has covered hockey for 30 years. "Everything flowed from those three, and while Potvin is as good as any of them, I prefer that Montreal team to the Islanders because of the other two. Also, like every great Montreal team I've ever seen, they came to play from Day One."
Indeed, the 1976-77 Canadiens put together the best regular-season record, 60-8-12, in league history before coasting through the playoffs with a 12-2 mark. In four years Montreal lost only 46 regular-season games, compared with the '80-83 Islanders' 88 defeats. Mind you, more was at stake back then in the regular season, most notably a bye in the opening round of the playoffs for division winners. As a result, the '76-79 Canadiens won 12 series en route to their four Cups, while the Islanders had to win 16. The '56-60 Canadiens, by contrast, won five Cups in only 10 series. Says Winger Bob Bourne, in defense of New York's less-than-dynastic regular-season records, "No matter what Mr. Arbour [Al, the Islander coach] and Mr. Torrey say, this team can turn it on and off when we want to."
Who, then, is the best? By the criterion of sustained domination of their era, the '56-60 Montreal teams remain on top. Nine of their players are in the Hall of Fame, whereas the '76-79 Canadiens can reasonably expect five Hall of Famers ( Savard, Lafleur, Robinson, Dryden and Yvan Cournoyer) and the Islanders three ( Potvin, Bossy and Trottier). More significant, the '56-60 Canadiens' string nearly began three years earlier. In 1953, with largely the same lineup it would have during its run of titles, Montreal won the Cup, and then in both '54 and '55 the Canadiens lost to an extraordinary Detroit Red Wings team in the seventh game of the finals. So for eight straight years Montreal either won or was within a game of the championship.