The championships are all equal in the objective, cut-and-dried record books. The Islanders lifted four straight Stanley Cups from 1980 to 1983, and no other franchise has won more than two in a row since. A remarkable 16 players played for all four Cup winners.
Yet it all starts with that first Cup, with the 1980 title being just a little bit more equal to Islanders fans. John Tonelli’s feed to Bobby Nystrom for the series-deciding, birth-of-a-dynasty overtime winner in Game 6 against the Philadelphia Flyers on a Saturday afternoon at Nassau Coliseum during Memorial Day weekend is the most iconic moment in team history.
That Cup-winning goal finally allowed the Islanders to shake off the sting of two straight seasons of devastating playoff losses when they were arguably the best team in the league.
Somehow, 40 years have whizzed by since that first Cup.
Tonelli's favorite memory of those seasons? “Well, I think the first one, our first Stanley Cup win,” the four-time Cup winner said in February. “We went through some ups and downs before we won in ’80.”
The Islanders ascended rapidly for an expansion franchise. They were born in 1972, and by 1975, they had knocked off the Rangers on J.P. Parise’s overtime goal in the deciding Game 3 of their first-round series at Madison Square Garden, the start of a long and bitter New York rivalry.
The Islanders forced a Game 7 against the Flyers in 1975 after losing the first three games of the series (one round after rallying from an 0-3 series deficit to beat the Penguins) and were eliminated by the dynastic Canadiens in 1976 and 1977. But those three straight runs to the NHL semifinals with losses to the eventual Cup winner only heightened expectations.
But the Maple Leafs ousted them in a seven-game quarterfinal series in 1978 after the Islanders won their first division title with 111 points, the third most in the league. The hated Rangers, who finished 25 points behind them in the standings, upset them in six games in the semifinals in 1979 after the Islanders led the NHL with 116 points.
“Sometimes it’s necessary to lose before you win,” Hall of Famer Mike Bossy, who scored a career-high 69 goals in 1978-79, told Newsday in January. “I just don’t think we were mature enough to win at that point. We were still missing a piece or two on the team. We were lacking a little experience in playing every type of game.”
The regular season certainly did not come easy for the Islanders in 1979-80. Clark Gillies resigned as captain two days before the season began, believing the leadership role negatively affected his game.
Fellow Hall of Famer Denis Potvin was named the new captain, but the defenseman was sidelined for the first eight games. Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier, who set career highs with 87 assists and 134 points in 1978-79, was briefly benched early in the season.
The Islanders lost three of their first four games and won only six of their first 21 in the era when games could end in ties after regulation.
But despite the slow start, the foundation for the franchise’s first Cup was being built.
Potvin’s older brother and fellow defenseman, Jean, was brought back as a free-agent signing in the offseason after general manager Bill Torrey traded him to the Cleveland Barons midway through the 1977-78 season following nearly five seasons with the developing Islanders. Defenseman Dave Langevin, another four-time Cup winner, was acquired in the offseason after playing three seasons in the WHA. Torrey acquired bulldog defenseman Gord Lane from the Washington Capitals in December and brought in Ken Morrow after the defenseman won Olympic gold with the "Miracle On Ice" Team USA in February. Both would win four Cups with the Islanders.
And, on March 10, 1980, Torrey pulled off his masterpiece, acquiring second-line center Butch Goring from the Kings as the perfect final piece to the championship puzzle.
“He knew when to be loose and he knew when to be serious, and that’s a good quality to have,” Morrow said of Goring, who won four Cups with the Islanders after spending his first 10-plus NHL seasons in Los Angeles. “He brought this veteran presence to the team. You could just see right away he fit in. He was a coach’s dream as a player because he did everything. He killed penalties, he scored, he checked, he was great on faceoffs. Coaches love those kinds of players.”
The Islanders snapped a two-game losing streak with a 4-1 win over the Colorado Rockies in Goring’s debut. It was the start of an 8-0-4 streak to end the regular season as they finished 39-28-13, second in the Patrick Division, a distant 25 points behind the Flyers.
The Islanders eliminated Goring’s former team, the Kings, 3-1, in the best-of-five first round. The Bruins were dispatched in five games in the best-of-seven quarterfinals and the Islanders built a 3-0 series lead against the Sabres in the semifinals before winning in six games.
Then came the Flyers in the Cup Final. It marked the birth of a dynasty.
A title that remains the most special, 40 years later.
1979-80 Isles: A look back
Record: 39-28-13 (91 points), Stanley Cup Champions
Standings: Finished 2nd in Patrick Division
Coach: Al Arbour
Captain: Denis Potvin
Goals scored: 281 (12th of 21)
Goals against: 247 (4th of 21)
Player G A Pts
Trottier 42 62 104
Bossy 51 41 92
Gillies 19 35 54
Kallur 22 30 52
Player GA SV pctg.
Resch 3.05 .901
Smith 2.96 .898
IN THE PLAYOFFS
Def. Los Angeles Kings, 3-1
- Game 1: Isles won, 8-1
- Game 2: Kings won, 6-3
- Game 3: Isles won, 4-3 (OT)
- Game 4: Isles won, 6-0
Def. Boston Bruins, 4-1
- Game 1: Isles won, 2-1 (OT)
- Game 2: Isles won, 5-4 (OT)
- Game 3: Isles won, 5-3
- Game 4: Bruins won, 4-3 (OT)
- Game 5: Isles won, 4-2
Def. Buffalo Sabres, 4-2
- Game 1: Isles won, 4-1
- Game 2: Isles won, 2-1 (2 OT)
- Game 3: Isles won, 7-4
- Game 4: Sabres won, 7-4
- Game 5: Sabres won, 2-0
- Game 6: Isles won, 5-2
Def. Philadelphia Flyers, 4-2
- Game 1: Isles won, 4-3 (OT)
- Game 2: Flyers won, 8-3
- Game 3: Isles won, 6-2
- Game 4: Isles won, 5-2
- Game 5: Flyers won, 6-3
- Game 6: Isles won, 5-4 (OT)
The 16 4-Cup Winners for the Isles