An inconsistent regular season, coupled with crushing back-to-back playoff eliminations, had lowered outside expectations, even among the rabid fan base. Yet as the NHL postseason began in April 1980, the stakes were quite high for the Islanders to finally prove they could win.
It’s the 40th anniversary of the organization’s first of four straight Stanley Cups. But earlier this month, Pat Calabria, who covered that dynasty for Newsday, recalled another reporter telling him during the first-round series against the Los Angeles Kings in 1980, “If this team loses, you better be ready to write this team’s obituary.”
Those Islanders were a close-knit group. Some players were original members of the organization from its birth in 1972 and others had been with the team from the early seasons. Future Hall of Famers Denis Potvin and Bryan Trottier had adjoining lockers in the team’s dressing room for 13 seasons.
But the anticipation created by three straight berths in the NHL semifinals from 1975-77 had given way to a reputation that the Islanders weren’t clutch or physical enough in the postseason.
They were beaten and beaten up by the Maple Leafs in a seven-game quarterfinal series in 1978 after winning their first division title. The following year, after the Islanders finished with the most points in the league, the Rangers upset them in a six-game semifinal series.
General manager Bill Torrey had constructed a roster that he and coach Al Arbour considered good enough to lift the Cup. Another playoff failure, and some thought Torrey might consider significant changes.
That provided motivation.
“Yeah, I would say so,” Hall of Famer Clark Gillies, who relinquished his captaincy to Potvin just before the start of the 1979-80 season, told Newsday this month. “There was always a little bit in the back of our minds. I can’t tell you what Bill Torrey was thinking if we didn’t win the Cup in ’80. Would he have dismantled the whole team? I doubt it. I’m pretty sure he would have had some pretty good sit-downs with some guys and say, ‘Do you want to win or not?’ ”
Said goalie Glenn "Chico'' Resch: “I just remember one sign at the [Nassau] Coliseum, ‘Trade Arbour, not our players.’ It was building up where everybody was sick and tired of losing and underachieving.”
The Islanders finished with 116 points in 1978-79 but started 1979-80 by winning only six of their first 21 games. They were 31-28-9 — the last category being ties — and were in the midst of a 4-8-1 slide when Torrey acquired second-line center Butch Goring from the Kings on March 10, 1980.
They no longer were considered a Cup favorite. The Montreal Canadiens had won four straight Cups, the Philadelphia Flyers set an NHL record with a 35-game unbeaten streak (25-0-10) during the regular season and the Big Bad Bruins still had the same core that reached the Cup Final in 1978.
But the Islanders finished the season on an 8-0-4 run and won 10 of their first 12 playoff games.
“We had had tremendous regular seasons and what did we have to show for it when it was all done?” Gillies said. “I don’t want to say we floated through the regular season. We finished fifth overall, which wasn’t horrible. But we took the lessons we had learned in ’78 when we lost to Toronto and ’79 when we lost to the Rangers and started to apply ourselves a little more.”
It culminated in a six-game win over the Flyers in the Cup Final.
“There were very few expectations going into those playoffs,” Potvin said. “We didn’t end up first overall in the league like we had the year before. And that was the year the Flyers seemed to be unbeatable. The focus was not very much on us.”
Goring was considered the final piece toward building a more balanced four-line team that could play a scrappier and tighter defensive game. But Torrey had made other key acquisitions.
Defenseman Jean Potvin, traded away in 1977-78, was re-signed. Defenseman Dave Langevin was acquired in the offseason and gritty defenseman Gord Lane came via a December trade with the Capitals. Ken Morrow joined the Islanders from Team USA immediately after the Miracle on Ice Olympic victory in late February.
“The 1980 team succeeded whereas the ’78 and ’79 team failed because of additions made by Torrey,” said hockey historian Stan Fischler, a longtime television analyst on Islanders broadcasts. “The Butch Goring add for Billy Harris and Dave Lewis was not the only move that mattered. Instead of sending Ken Morrow to the AHL after the Olympic gold, Torrey brought him right up and Morrow starred alongside Denis Potvin. The other overlooked add was defenseman Gord Lane. No Islanders regular was more intimidating than Lane. ‘Opponents didn’t want to go near Gordie,’ Morrow told me the other day.”
After Resch shared the net with Billy Smith through previous playoff runs, Arbour finally chose a No. 1 goalie. In 1980, Smith played in 20 of the 21 postseason games, compiling a 15-4 mark with a 2.70 goals-against average and a .903 save percentage.
His combative personality meshed perfectly with the more physical style the Islanders knew they had to play. A fight-filled, five-game quarterfinal win over the Bruins put to rest the notion that the Islanders were a soft team.
“ ‘We should have won already and we haven’t, so what do we need to do to get this thing done?’ ” Gillies said of the team’s thinking. “We all applied ourselves a little more, whether it was on the physical side, scoring-wise, thinking a little more, playing better team defense. Getting Butchie at the trade deadline made that team a lot more dangerous and a lot better defensively.”
The Islanders outscored their four playoff opponents 88-66 and won six of their seven playoff overtime games, including, of course, the deciding Game 6 against the Flyers.