The Islanders see, along with the new feistiness and LaFontaine's contributions, four reasons for their U-turn:
•Keeping close to the other guys. Before the Trade, "We weren't as bad as our record indicated," they say. The Islanders seldom get blown out. When you throw out empty-net goals scored against them, 10 of their 21 defeats have been by a single goal. "When we had breakdowns," says LaFontaine, "they'd usually come late in the game, and they would cost us the game."
•The goalies. Healy and Mark Fitzpatrick, two of five former Kings on the roster, have sparkled since the Trade. Going into the Islanders' Nov. 30 game in Chicago—their first since the Trade-Fitzpatrick had a 1-8-1 record and a corresponding confidence level. With McDonough scoring his first goal as an Islander and Baumgartner leveling every Blackhawk in sight, Fitzpatrick stonewalled Chicago 2-0. In 12 games since he has gone 9-2-1, with two more shutouts. The post-Trade Healy is 5-1.
•The Trade (addition by subtraction). Makela's departure "excised a cancer," says one Islander official. In contrast to his 36-goal 1987-88 season, Makela scored only twice in 20 games this season. His moping and chronic unhappiness had begun to infect the team.
•The Trade (addition). While McDonough has been a pleasant surprise, scrapping and checking and even chipping in with five goals, Baumgartner, who at week's end did not have a single point as an Islander, has been even more useful. Ideally, intimidation would not be a part of the NHL, but the NHL is short on idealism. Baumgartner, it so happens, is an intimidators' intimidator, the most effective "cop" the Islanders have seen since Bobby Nystrom and Clark Gillies patrolled the rinks a decade ago. Of Baumgartner, LaFontaine says, "He's the kind of guy, you're just glad he's on your team."
Under Al Arbour, who took over behind the Islander bench on an interim basis in December 1988 (Arbour retired two years earlier after having guided New York to four consecutive Stanley Cups, from 1980 to '83), Baumgartner has learned to be more selective in the use of his ham-hock fists.
"He knows that if he takes three five-minute majors and spends 15 minutes in the penalty box, he's not doing us much good," says Healy. "He's become a mosquito. He bugs the other teams' snipers without drawing a penalty—kind of like a mosquito that lands in the middle of your back, where you can't reach it."
Baumgartner, who has his pride, takes exception to that simile. "Mosquito? Get serious," says Baumgartner. "I'm a Bengal tiger out there."
Mosquito, Bengal tiger, hammerhead, whatever—Baumgartner has lent his teammates courage in the NHL's tough arenas, and provided LaFontaine with precious extra room in which to work his magic. In New York's 8-4 humiliation of the North Stars in Minnesota on Jan. 11, LaFontaine contributed six points—five assists and a goal. The goal extended his streak to 11 games, a club record. But the most significant red light of his night awaited LaFontaine on his arrival in his hotel room, where he was greeted by a flashing bulb on his phone. Mike Bossy, whose record LaFontaine broke, had called to offer his congratulations. "I thought that was pretty classy," says LaFontaine.
This bonhomie is a recent development. In 1984, when LaFontaine arrived on Long Island in late season as a highly touted rookie, he was not welcomed with open arms. The Islanders were a close-knit dynasty. LaFontaine, a doe-eyed media darling, had won nothing but would probably end up taking someone's job, went the thinking. "There was a little bit of resentment, from guys who aren't here anymore," says center Brent Sutter. LaFontaine, who says nothing when he has nothing nice to say, will not admit that he felt ostracized, nor will he deny it. He does say, "Whatever happened that year, it never diminished the respect I had for those guys as players."