Any best-of-seven series can be expected to have its feeling-out period, a game or two in which the foes probe each other for soft spots that might later be exploited. But when you are three games into a Stanley Cup final and the highlight is a holding penalty whistled by Referee Andy van Hellemond in overtime of Game 1, there is reason to suspect that what you've seen is what you're going to keep getting, that the pairing—in this case the New York Islanders and the Philadelphia Flyers—is an unfortunate one in which the two parties, as in a bad marriage, bring out the very worst in each other. Captain Denis Potvin was dead right when, after his Islanders' 6-2 win last Saturday night, which put them ahead two games to one, he said, "There's been no unbelievable play in the series yet. What you have here are just two hard-nosed hockey teams that are going at it, trying to put the puck in the net any way they can."
The problem could well be that the Islanders and Flyers are too much alike. Both teams have offenses that depend on forechecking and defenses that make the area in front of the net a minefield for opposing forwards. The Islanders have a sniper in Mike Bossy and a speedster in Bob Bourne; the Flyers counter with a sniper in Reggie Leach and a speedster in Ken (Rat) Linseman. The Islanders have the ubiquitous Butch Goring; the Flyers have the ubiquitous Bobby Clarke. This balancing act goes awry only on defense, where Philadelphia lacks any facsimile of Potvin. Both teams pride themselves on digging in the corners and tying up their counterparts, and as a result there was approximately one game-delaying face-off every 50 seconds in the first three games. Said one grizzled observer after Saturday night's game, "The bar mitzvah back at the hotel was more exciting than this."
The Islander-Flyer series was expected to be very rough, even a war, but Tuesday night's opener at the Spectrum unfolded as the NHL's answer to Jimmy Young vs. Jimmy Young, a counter-punching affair in which neither side committed itself offensively. "Part of our strategy is to establish our forechecking and dominate the game," said Flyer Defenseman Behn Wilson. "But we didn't do that. We were so worried about making a mistake that we were tentative. We've got to realize that hockey's a game of mistakes."
Hockey's also a game of breaks, and in the third period, with the score tied 2-2, the breaks came freakishly. First, Flyer Rick MacLeish scored a fluke goal—Philadelphia's first goal had been freakish, too, having been scored inadvertently by Potvin, of all people—off the back of Goalie Billy Smith's leg for a 3-2 lead. Then, with slightly less than four minutes left and the Islanders on the power play, the Flyers' Bill Barber broke his stick.
"If I'd been on the other side of the ice, I'd have come right off," Barber said, "but as it was, I would've had to skate all the way across the rink. So I stayed out there. Bossy threw the pass across to [Stefan] Persson, and if I'd had a stick, I know I could've tipped it. But...." Persson fired the tying goal past Pete Peeters, sending the game into overtime and setting the stage for van Hellemond's show of integrity.
Two minutes into OT, Islander John Tonelli was carrying the puck past Defenseman Jimmy Watson and seemed headed for a point-blank shot against a very lonesome Peeters when Watson hauled him down by the throat, a flagrant infraction. Van Hellemond rightly made the holding call as the Spectrum crowd howled in protest. All too often in similar situations the referee has looked the other way, fearful of assessing a penalty that might decide the game in sudden death.
"It was a great call," said NHL Referee-in-Chief Scotty Morrison.
"It wasn't necessarily a bad call," said Watson. "But usually...in overtime...."
"No comment," fumed Flyer Coach Pat Quinn.
Potvin scored the game-winner with one second left in Watson's penalty, the first overtime power-play goal in the 46 years that the NHL has kept records for the Stanley Cup finals. Suddenly, the home-ice advantage shifted to the Islanders, who to that point had an 8-1 road record during the playoffs.