As an assistant coach for the Lightning, Steve Thomas was too busy helping finish the Red Wings series and prepare for the Islanders series to notice how much the hockey world spent last week revisiting the 1993 playoffs. After practice on Thursday, he added, “Ninety-three was a long time ago. It’s hard to remember a lot of that.”
Then he remembered just about all of it.
He recalled how great Ray Ferraro, Benoit Hogue, Glenn Healy, Pierre Turgeon, Vladimir Malakhov and just about everybody else played for the Islanders that spring. After a quick reminder or two, he knew again how it sounded in Nassau Coliseum, how Al Arbour got everything out of that team, how they felt after knocking off the champion Penguins and facing the Canadiens in the semifinals. He even remembered exactly how many goals Turgeon scored that regular season: 58.
Thomas was not quite sure, possibly out of modesty, precisely how impressive his own postseason was that year. He was informed he collected 17 points in 18 games, second on the team to Ferraro’s 20. What struck him most of all was that it was unforgettable.
Of course, he is working hard to prevent an Islanders repeat this week (as are fellow assistants Brad Lauer, traded from the Islanders to the Blackhawks in the 1991 deal that acquired Thomas, and Rick Bowness, former Islanders head coach). Thomas said that Thursday would have been much better had the Lightning not lost Game 1, 5-3, to his former team Wednesday night. Still, for a player who had a solid 18 seasons in the National Hockey League, his for years with the Islanders — especially 1992-93 and 1993-94, when he totaled 79 goals — will always stay with him.
“They were the best years of my career,” he said. “Just playing with Pierre Turgeon . . . Every time I went on the ice, I wanted to make sure I was going to stay with him the next game. That was a motivating factor for me because if I was playing with him, then I knew I was going to be able to put numbers up.”
A number that grew too large for Islanders fans was the number of years, 23, between playoff series victories. When the team beat the Panthers Sunday, it ended the drought, and brought on a lot of nostalgia about 1993. Although Thomas did not get caught up in that, he still carries the message of that playoff run: Play intensely, stay with the system, listen to the coaches, be unselfish with your teammates. That is how you win in the postseason.
“We were hitting it on all cylinders going into the playoffs. I think when you’re playing playoff hockey in the last 10 games of the year, it’s a segue toward the playoffs. And our team really came together,” he said. “In the end, we put out the two-time defending Stanley Cup champs. That was a huge feather in our caps. In retrospect, we almost thought that was our Stanley Cup.”
Yes, he does let himself wonder how close the Islanders would have come to hoisting the Cup had Turgeon not been severely injured by Dale Hunter’s post-goal attack at the end of the Capitals series. But he knows that his coach at the time never let the Islanders indulge self-pity.
As a coach now, Thomas’ respect for the late Arbour is as high as it ever was. “You wanted to play so hard for the guy. He just exuded so much respect,” the former right wing said. “He was forceful at times, but he was nurturing at the same time. He respected you as a player if you played hard and rewarded you with ice time and put you in all the good situations that you could be in.”
Being an Islander in ’93, playing at the Coliseum, was a heck of a good situation. Thomas does not know what to expect from Barclays Center Tuesday, but he said, “The building was rocking back then. Kudos to the fans. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for that building.”
And he never will forget that year.