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Like oniongrass, preferred lies, potholes and silvery sun reflectors, the Stanley Cup collapse of the New York Islanders has long been one of the annual signs of spring on Long Island. When the going got tough, the Islanders always got going. Going home, that is, to places like Umea, Sweden; Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan; and Emily, Minn. Two years ago the Islanders, easy winners of the Patrick Division, were routed by the nondescript Toronto Maple Leafs in the quarterfinals. Last spring the Islanders, the team with the best record in the NHL during the 80-game regular season, the team with a record better even than Montreal's, were bounced from the semifinals by the hated New York Rangers. And for most of the 1979-80 season it appeared that the Islanders would be going home to the Umeas and the Moose Jaws of this world earlier than ever.
On March 10, the NHL's trading deadline, the Islanders were a disgruntled, disorganized and dismal hockey team; their record was barely better than .500, and they were No. 9 in the 21-team NHL and slip-sliding away. But late that night, in what now may be viewed as a stroke of genius, General Manager Bill Torrey pried Butch Goring, a scruffy 30-year-old center who always plays at a breakneck pace, from Los Angeles in exchange for Forward Billy Harris and Defense-man Dave Lewis. Goring immediately pumped new life into a team that had seemed one step from interment at Nassau Knolls. The Islanders charged through the final 12 games of the season without a loss—winning eight and tying four—and gained the No. 5 position in the overall standings.
Then, in the opening round of the playoffs, they eliminated Goring's old L.A. teammates three games to one. Advancing to the quarterfinals, the Islanders squared off against Boston. When the Bruins challenged them to put up their dukes in the first two games at Boston, the Islanders—notably Clark Gillies, Bob Nystrom and Garry Howatt—not only accepted the invitation, but they also left the Bruins—notably Terry O'Reilly—battered and dazed. New York won the two games in overtime and ousted Boston four games to one.
Last week the Islanders expected to play No. 1-seeded Philadelphia in the semifinals, but Minnesota, the No. 6 seed, dumped third-seeded Montreal in the quarterfinals, so the Islanders ended up in Buffalo, playing the No. 2-seeded Sabres. There they were greeted by newspaper stories detailing dozens of alleged health violations at the hotel in which they were staying. At the midday skate before Tuesday night's Game 1, Right Wing Mike Bossy flashed a poster that read: BOYCOTT THE STATLER HILTON.
New York stunned the Sabres that night with a 4-1 victory—Buffalo's first home-ice loss in almost four months—and followed on Thursday night with a 2-1 win on Bob Nystrom's goal after 21 minutes and 20 seconds of overtime; Goring had scored the Islanders' first goal of that game in the second period. Returning home, the Islanders blitzed the Sabres 7-4 Saturday night—Goring had a goal—to go up three-zip in the series, and suddenly they were just one victory away from their first appearance in the Cup finals.
"The way we're rolling now, the players on the Flyers and the North Stars must pick up the papers, read about us, and come to the conclusion that we're awesome," says Islander Left Wing Bob Bourne. "We're doing what Montreal always used to do. I know how we reacted to Montreal in the past, and it's awfully hard to play against a team when you're thinking that they're awesome."
While Goaltender Battlin' Billy Smith has been spectacular throughout the playoffs for New York, and while the massive Gillies (6'3", 220 pounds) has at long last assumed the role of policeman and played it perfectly, the key to the Islanders' unexpected success has been Goring. New York has played 24 games with Goring in the lineup and lost only two. Before his arrival, the team relied almost exclusively on the offensive firepower of the Gillies-Bossy- Bryan Trottier line; last season the so-called Trio Grande combined for a record-breaking 151 goals, and in 1977-78 the line scored 134 of the Islanders' 334 goals. But the only balance the Islanders showed was in their checkbooks, and when opposition checkers easily shut down the Trio Grande in the playoffs, all the Islanders went home early.
Thanks to Goring, though, the Islanders no longer qualify as a lone-line team. When Goring showed up, Coach Al Arbour finally had a second real-live All-Star-caliber center at his disposal. He promptly broke up the Trio Grande and distributed the wealth among the three, and oftentimes four, lines he now utilizes. Arbour, in fact, concocted 38 different line combinations last week in the games with Buffalo, foiling the defensive strategies of Sabre Coach Scotty Bowman.
"It's far more difficult to prepare for the Islanders than it used to be," says Buffalo Center Don Luce. "Goring gives them a whole new dimension. Now, if you stop Trottier, there's Goring to beat you. Or someone else."
In all, seven Islanders have scored four or more goals in the playoffs—Goring has four—and the winning goals in their four sudden-death games have been scored by Defenseman Ken Morrow, the U.S. Olympian, and Forwards Bourne, Nystrom and Gillies. "Everyone helps out now," Bourne says.