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New York Islander Goalie Billy Smith, his red face beaming as he drank beer on the rocks last Sunday night while his teammates sipped champagne from the Stanley Cup, spoke for everyone: the fans in Vancouver's Pacific Coliseum who finally had been forced to throw in their white towels, his teammates, even the gritty Canucks, who had lost in four straight games. "We're the best," Smith said. "We made one mistake in two nights on the road—one mistake—and you can't say enough about a hockey team like that."
Nobody seemed able to say enough. The Islanders had been that dominant in the series. Indeed, they have been that dominant for the past three years. Harry Neale, who coached Vancouver until the final five games of the regular season and is slated to be general manager next year, called the current New York club "an almost perfect team," which is about as neatly as one can put it. With their culminating 3-1 win on Sunday, their ninth victory in a row in postseason play this spring, came the Islanders' third consecutive Cup. Two second-period power-play goals by Mike Bossy broke open a 1-1 game, and the rest of the way the Islanders and Smith shut down the Canucks. The goals gave Bossy, who was named the MVP of the playoffs, seven for the final series, tying a record the great Jean Beliveau set in 1956 with the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens went on to win five straight Stanley Cups, a goal that now seems in reach of the Islanders. Said New York Coach Al Arbour, "The first year they said it was a fluke, the next we proved it wasn't, and this year we proved that we are a great team."
Only two other teams have won three or more consecutive Stanley Cups—the Toronto Maple Leafs (1947-49, 1962-64) and the Canadiens (1976-79 as well as 1956-60). Like the most recent Montreal dynasty, which New York General Manager Bill Torrey used as a model for his club, the Islanders can adjust to any style of hockey. Before facing Vancouver, they eliminated Pittsburgh, a dump-and-grind team, and then the Rangers and the Nordiques, who attempt to skate and pass you dizzy.
All hockey teams are the sum of several elements—speed, defense, goaltending, special teams, faceoffs, leadership, coaching, etc.—and the great ones are the best at the most. In Bob Nystrom, Duane Sutter, John Tonelli and Clark Gillies, the Islanders have some of the strongest mucking forwards in the NHL. Bryan Trottier is the best all-around center, a player who can dominate at either end of the ice. He's a master at controlling faceoffs, and Arbour has Trottier take every draw in the Islanders' defensive zone. If Trottier has a weakness, it's his shot, which is only average, but with a sniper like Bossy on his line, Trottier seldom needs to shoot from outside.
In Ken Morrow, who now has played for all the Islander Cup champions and an Olympic gold medal winner, New York has one of the best defensive defensemen in hockey (three goals in 123 games). Denis Potvin is the best power-play point man since Bobby Orr. Smith, of course, is the premier playoff goalie, and Butch Goring and Billy Carroll are two of the top penalty killers. While the Islanders aren't exceptionally fast, Bob Bourne can move, and, like Gillies, Duane and Brent Sutter, Nystrom, Gordie Lane and Dave Langevin, he can fight. New York's power play is the best, leadership abounds in the dressing room, and there are almost no personality conflicts—thanks largely to Arbour.
All in all, it would have been almost inconceivable that the Islanders wouldn't win the Stanley Cup. Not only do they have no exploitable weaknesses, but in almost every case their role players are the best in the NHL as well. And just to make sure his charges don't get complacent, Torrey has a fresh face or two on the team each year. This season rookie Brent Sutter played that role. Says Torrey, "His enthusiasm is contagious."
In the Canucks, the Islanders saw their former selves. "Our team reminds me of the Islanders a few years ago," said Vancouver Defenseman Harold Snepsts. Added Winger Dave (Tiger) Williams, "All you hear about is our clutching and grabbing, but Mr. Arbour invented that."
Arbour, known as "Radar" in his playing days because he was the first NHL player to wear glasses during games, scored only 12 goals in his 626-game career. Yet he was on four Stanley Cup champions—Detroit in 1954, Chicago in 1961 and Toronto in 1962 and '64. A stay-at-home defenseman, Arbour may not have invented clutching and grabbing, but he was towed around his own zone so often by enemy forwards that it seemed the league was furnishing him with Seeing Eye dogs. Which is exactly how Vancouver tried to throw the Islanders off their game. Tugging surreptitiously on jerseys, discreetly grabbing sticks, the Canucks sought to frustrate New York into retaliation. In the end, though, they frustrated only themselves.
Not that Vancouver really expected to win the series. Having finished a whopping 41 points behind the Islanders in the regular-season standings, the Canucks were delighted just to reach the finals. And, let's face it, a Cinderella team that comes to the ball dressed as a pumpkin isn't asking for miracles.
Superb teams like the Islanders find ways to win on nights they're not playing well. That's what happened in the first two games of the finals, as New York, which allowed the second-fewest goals (3.1 per game) in the league during the regular season, gave up nine and still came away with two victories. The performance of the special teams was the difference. In Game 2, the Islanders scored three power-play goals—just as they had done in winning the opener 6-5, thanks to Bossy's sudden-death goal—plus a short-hander by Carroll en route to a 6-4 victory.