- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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Pat Quinn, the jut-jawed, ramrod-erect coach of the Flyers, had slyly called it "That old bugaboo from their past," but the headlines in the Philadelphia newspapers were not that subtle, ISLANDERS—CHOKE! they implied. Indeed, the New York Islanders have regularly worn the Choke! label in recent Stanley Cup playoffs, and several times last week they once again seemed ready to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The Islanders had beaten the Flyers 5-2 Monday night at the Nassau Coliseum to take a three-games-to-one lead in the finals, but with a chance to bury forever their image as chokers and win the Cup, they had been blown out of the Spectrum 6-3 by Philadelphia Thursday night in Game 5. And now, as 14,995 long-suffering Long Islanders look on in horror Saturday afternoon, there are telltale signs of throat grabbing out on the slushy ice—a swimming pool, really—in the mercilessly muggy Coliseum.
The Islanders led the Flyers 4-2 after two periods and were only 20 minutes from a champagne bath, but in their usual fashion they allowed the feisty Philadelphians to tie the game at 4-4 and force a sudden-death overtime. Gulp. And as the O.T. begins, Islander Goal-tender Billy Smith, who had played poorly in Game 5 and not much better in the regulation time of Game 6, looks so shaky that he doesn't seem capable of stopping a basketball, let alone a hockey puck.
Bobby Clarke rifles a shot for the corner high to Smith's right side. Smith never moves. The puck flies inches over the crossbar and smacks against the glass. Ken (Rat) Linseman, everyone's enemy, gets the puck alone in front of Smith but waits far too long to shoot. Islander Defenseman Bob Lorimer throws his body at the puck, and muffles the shot. Smith falls on it and sighs with relief.
Almost seven minutes into sudden death, Islander Coach Al Arbour sends out his third line of Lorne Henning, John Tonelli and Bob Nystrom. Henning is an Islander original, a survivor of the 1972-73 season when the expansion Islanders, their roster littered with rejects and smooth-faced 20-year-olds like Henning, won only 12 of 78 games and were the butt of tired jokes cracked by the haughty Rangers. Over the years Henning developed into a competent penalty killer, but this season he lost even that spare-parts job. He dressed for only 39 of the Islanders' 80 games and was skating in the playoffs only because Anders Kallur had suffered a disabling shoulder injury.
Tonelli is a hunched-over, plodding skater who makes his living along the boards and scores his few goals—just 17 this season—on rebounds or deflections; he played for the Houston Aeros in the WHA when that team went belly-up financially, and when he joined the Islanders at the end of the 1977-78 season, he probably didn't realize how close they were to being bankrupt themselves. The owner at the time had spent his hockey earnings on a pro basketball team, and only an infusion of new ownership and fresh cash kept the Islanders out of receivership and on Long Island.
Like Henning, Thore Robert Nystrom is an Islander original. The Hammer of Thor they called him during those early losing years; Nystrom may have been a good fighter, but he wasn't much of a hockey player. He couldn't skate; he'd take a couple of strides, trip over one of the lines and fall flat onto the ice. The Islanders finally hired skating instructor Laura Stamm to work with Nystrom. That fairly titillated Nystrom's opponents, who kept asking him about his Triple Salchows. But Nystrom stopped falling down every few strides and became a solid third-line right wing—that is, a dependable checker and someone good for more than 20 but not more than 30 goals a season. He also became the Islanders' main man in the clutch, scoring the winning goal in three overtime playoff games before the Philadelphia series. And earlier in Game 6, with time running out in the second period, Nystrom had given the Islanders their 4-2 lead by rapping Tonelli's perfect goal-mouth pass past Flyer Goaltender Pete Peeters.
And now Henning has the puck in his own half of the ice, between the blue and red lines. He passes it across the red line to Tonelli, the best Islander player this day, who is cutting into the middle from left to right. Tonelli swoops across the Philadelphia blue line and bears down on Defenseman Moose Dupont. Suddenly Tonelli spots Nystrom breaking for the net on his left, a half stride ahead of Defenseman Bob Dailey, and threads a perfect pass onto Nystrom's stick. Like most NHL players in this age of the slap shot, Nystrom uses a stick with a boomerang curve. Because of the bend in the blade, he cannot backhand the puck with any authority; in fact, he remembers no backhanders among his 21 goals this season. But now he thrusts his stick at the sliding puck and backhands it up into the air and over the sliding Peeters into the net.
"We had to do it the hard way," Nystrom said. "For the past three years we've been doing things the hard way. Did you really think we'd change now?"