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Billy Smith: Mystery and magician in goal for Islanders during 1980 Stanley Cup run

Islanders goaltender Billy Smith,  shown here in

Islanders goaltender Billy Smith,  shown here in the team's first Stanley Cup run in 1980, was a stalwart of the Islanders' dynasty. Credit: Getty Images/Focus On Sport

Islanders coach Al Arbour met privately with his goalies, Billy Smith and Glenn “Chico” Resch, in the weeks leading up to the 1980 NHL playoffs.

“He said, ‘Guys, I know I’ve given you both a chance in every playoff,’ ” Resch recalled to Newsday. “’But this year, if one of you gets hot, we’ve got to go with you.’ Both Smitty and I agreed.”

Smith started and won Game 1 of the Islanders’ best-of-five first-round series against the Los Angeles Kings. Resch started the Game 2 loss. From there, it was Smith’s net — one he protected often, either with the butt end of his goalie stick, by slashing opponents or by flat-out fighting — and the combative goalie forged a Hall of Fame career that included the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in 1983.

The  Islanders are marking the 40th anniversary of the 1980 Stanley Cup championship, their first of four straight, and Smith was a big part of it.

His unique style of play, which many opponents deemed dirty, sometimes masked his superior, often acrobatic and occasionally unorthodox netminding talents.

“I had bruises on the back of my leg, too,” Hall of Fame defenseman Denis Potvin told Newsday this month. “He’d miss the other guy and hit me.”

But it was all just part of Smith's overall demeanor.

He refused to participate in the traditional post-playoff series handshake line. He hated practices, particularly morning skates. Often, he would stand against one post, allowing his teammates to shoot into the vast open area of the net while getting into arguments or scrapes, as he did once with Hall of Famer Mike Bossy. Teammates would hit him with a puck.

His pregame routine included sitting silently at his locker stall wearing all of his equipment, save for his shoulder pads and chest protector. His teammates knew not to talk to him.

“In my view, he was a huge asset,” Potvin said. “Smitty helped protect the front of our net as well as any third defenseman could have.”

“He could do that stuff as long as he got the job done, and that was a huge motivating factor for him,” Resch said. “He knew he had to get the job done or all the stuff would cave in.”

 Smith’s antics around the crease worked, and most opponents gave him a wide berth. As a result, he faced fewer screened shots than many other goalies did.

The media, too, knew not to crowd Smith. He was a reluctant interview subject, at best, particularly earlier in his career.

True to form, Smith politely declined an interview request from Newsday in February.

“He was one of the few people you didn’t deal with,” longtime Newsday columnist Steve Jacobson recalled this month, adding that the dynastic Islanders were the “smoothest,” most cooperative team he covered. “You tried because you had to try. And you wound up writing that Billy wasn’t talking after the game.”

Arbour's decision  to use Smith almost exclusively as his playoff goalie was as much a final piece to the Islanders’ championship puzzle as was the acquisition of Butch Goring from the Kings on March 10, 1980.

“Chico was pretty much the No. 1 goaltender up to that point. He got the most playing time,” Hall of Famer Clark Gillies told Newsday this month. “Then something happened where he faltered a little bit and Smitty got put in there. Smitty never looked back. It was like, ‘You want me to go in and play, you want me to play under these conditions? Then I want you to play me. I’m not going in for one game and coming out. I want to stay in there.’ ”

“He’s a very focused individual,” said Goring, who came up with Smith in the Kings’ organization, with the two leading Springfield to the AHL’s Calder Cup championship in 1971. “I knew the pressure was never going to bother him. Billy had a chance to run with it and he seized the moment. The rest is history.”

Smith, then 29, went 15-4 with a 2.70 goals-against average and a .903 save percentage while playing in 20 of the Islanders’ 21 playoff games in the run to their first Cup.

Smith was selected from the Kings in the expansion draft and was with the Islanders in their first season of 1972-73. He and Resch had shared the Islanders’ net fairly evenly since Resch replaced Gerry Desjardins as Smith’s partner to start the 1974-75 season.

That included five postseason runs leading up to 1980.

Smith played in 10 of the 12 playoff games in 1977 as the Islanders reached the NHL semifinals for the third straight year. But Resch played in all seven games in 1978 as the Islanders, coming off their first division title, were upset by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the quarterfinals. In 1979, each played five games as the Islanders, who had finished with the most points in the league in the regular season, were upset in the semifinals by the  Rangers.

But Smith established himself in the 1980 Cup run and Resch, his buddy, was traded to the Colorado Rockies in the middle of the following season.

“Smitty was the most unique athlete I have ever been around,” Resch said. “He won four straight Stanley Cups, he played great. But he doesn’t get the credit mainly because of some of those antics and his relationship with the press and even a little bit with the fans. But I saw Smitty this spring, and you know what? He doesn’t care.”

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