At least they
know they won last year's NHL championship. After all, it says so right there
on the Stanley Cup. See: NEW YORK ISLANDERS, 1980. Still, as the Isles
leapfrogged around the continent from October to April en route to their second
regular-season title in three years, a number of their best and brightest
players were wondering—did anyone else know?
there was the night in March when Montreal's Bob Gainey, the league's best
defensive forward, told reporters that the Canadiens, St. Louis Blues and
Philadelphia Flyers were the three best teams in the NHL. The Islanders? Not a
mention. But the Islanders heard him. And remembered. "Someone should ask
Mr. Bob Gainey, Mr. Defense, which team is best in the league now," New
York Left Wing Clark Gillies said with some glee after Edmonton eliminated the
Canadiens from the 1981 playoffs with a three-game preliminary-round sweep.
oversight served only as more evidence of what the Islanders suspected. "As
a team, I don't think we ever received the respect we earned from winning the
Stanley Cup," says Right Wing Mike Bossy, who scored 68 goals this season.
"Last year, 'choke' was the word that followed us around," says team
captain Denis Potvin, reflecting on the fact that the Islanders had scored 116
points in winning the 1978-79 regular-season title and then were beaten in six
games by the N.Y. Rangers in the Stanley Cup semifinal round. "After we won
the Cup in '80, the word was 'fluke.' We're going to prove to those people who
doubted us all along that we're a damn good team. We're going to force people
to give us that respect."
Clark, meet new believer Barry Beck. Beck is the defenseman who led the
Rangers—13th place in the regular-season standings—to lopsided upsets over
fourth-place Los Angeles and second-place St. Louis in the first two rounds of
the come-one, come-all playoffs. Those triumphs set up the second semifinal
Battle for New York showdown between the Islanders and Rangers in three years,
which opened last week on the Isles' ice. Despite having finished 36 points
behind the Islanders (110-74), the Rangers were confident they would be the
team to advance to the finals; they remembered '79, and the Islanders hadn't
beaten them in Madison Square Garden since then. But by late last Saturday
night, the Rangers' confidence had been shattered. After two lopsided defeats
in the Nassau Coliseum, the Rangers succumbed at last on home ice. That 5-1
rout gave the Islanders a commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
"The Islanders are the best team I've ever played against," said
general manager, Bill Torrey, believes his team may have brought upon itself
some of the lack of respect it encountered this season. "We should have won
the league championship by a wide margin, and when we didn't, that gave people
the room they needed to question us," he says. Indeed, the Islanders had
trailed St. Louis by seven points with four weeks remaining in the 80-game
regular season before reeling off a finishing 12-1-4 kick that earned them the
title by three points.
Last year the
Islanders had been mired in the middle of the league in mid-March, before
closing 8-0-4 and going on to win the Cup. The catalyst in that surge had been
a Torrey-negotiated deal at the trade deadline. The Islanders got Center Butch
Goring from Los Angeles for Defenseman Dave Lewis and Right Wing Billy
This year another
Torrey trade on the March 10 deadline may have provided a similar spark. Torrey
had been fretting over the inability of his sometimes plodding defense to move
the puck out of its own zone, and over its susceptibility to heavy forechecking
pressure. Also, he feared the consequences of injuries to the point men on his
record-setting power-play unit, Potvin and Stefan Persson—the Islanders scored
a record 93 goals on power plays this year. So Torrey dealt popular Goaltender
Glenn (Chico) Resch and Center Steve Tambellini to Colorado for 24-year-old
Defenseman Mike McEwen. The trade was questioned at the time. Billy Smith, who
had shared goaltending duties with Resch, wasn't having a particularly good
season; McEwen was prone to taking reckless gambles. His style seemed at odds
with Islander Coach Al Arbour's conservative philosophy.
Though McEwen had
problems adjusting to his new coach and team, he became more confident with
each game. And when a puck broke Persson's jaw in the fourth game of the
quarterfinal series against Edmonton, Torrey's move was more than justified.
With McEwen, Potvin and Persson alternating on point, the Islanders scored 24
power-play goals in 12 playoff games, one shy of their own Cup record set in
opened defense of their Cup by sweeping the 16th-place Toronto Maple Leafs in
three games, outscoring them 20-4. But after the concurrent Montreal- Edmonton
series, Oiler Center Wayne Gretzky said his club had beaten "the greatest
team in hockey." He meant that in the historical sense, but the Islanders
took it as yet another slight. Still, the quarterfinals lasted six games, with
Edmonton giving the champions all they could handle. "Hey, it wasn't us
being bad," says Right Wing Bob Nystrom, "it was them being good. But
I'm glad we had a tough series; it helped prepare us for the Rangers."
At least one
Ranger also was aware of the danger of using 1979's playoff upset as a
barometer of this year's series. "It bugs me," said Left Wing Don
Maloney. "If anyone would look at the teams, they'd know it wasn't the
same." Indeed, only nine current uninjured Islanders and six current
uninjured Rangers had been on hand in '79.