Christmas had come early to Long Island.
At least, that’s the way Bryan Trottier felt as he approached Nassau Coliseum on May 17, 1980 for Game 3 of the Islanders’ Stanley Cup Final against the Philadelphia Flyers.
The expansion franchise, born in 1972, had advanced to the NHL semifinals from 1975-77 and again in 1979, when they were upset in six games by the rival Rangers despite finishing first overall in the regular-season standings.
Finally, 40 years ago (the game was played on May 17, 1980), the venerable barn would host its first Cup Final game.
“That place was going nuts,” Trottier recalled to Newsday recently. “I call it the Heinz ketchup bottle — anticipation. You can’t wait for the puck to drop. The day seems to move so slow.
“I just remember the Christmas of the day,” Trottier added. “The spring. The dogwoods are blooming. The drive to the rink. It just seems so crisp. Stepping out on the Coliseum ice. Stanley Cup Final. First Final game ever at Nassau Coliseum. In front of our fans. The place is like beyond pure joy. This is like anticipation joy.”
To date, the Coliseum has hosted 12 Cup Final games. The Islanders won four straight Cups from 1980-83 before the Edmonton Oilers snapped their record streak of 19 consecutive playoff-round wins with a five-game victory in the 1984 Cup Final.
It started with the convincing 6-2 win over the Flyers in Game 3.
“It really was a carnival-like atmosphere,” said Pat Calabria, Newsday’s beat reporter during the Islanders’ dynasty. “I remember guys dressed up as the Stanley Cup. The tailgating, which is usually not associated with hockey, certainly not back then. The anticipation of what could happen.”
“That whole series with the Flyers at the Coliseum, it was so loud,” Butch Goring told Newsday in April. “The fans were so ready. They had talked about a Stanley Cup for two years previous. The Islanders were ready to win a Cup. They kind of got spoiled a little bit back in ’75, when they had that tremendous run and then lost to the Flyers in seven. I think the Islanders’ fans were like, ‘OK, we’re ready for the next step,’ and the next step didn’t show. I think there was such a feel of anticipation in the Coliseum. They were ready.”
The teams returned from Philadelphia with the series tied at one game apiece. The Islanders took the series opener, 4-3, at the Spectrum — a claustrophobic barn in its own right — on captain Denis Potvin’s power-play winner at 4:07 of the first overtime. That was on May 13. Two days later, the Flyers chased goalie Billy Smith after two periods in an 8-3 win in Game 2.
Through the first three postseason rounds and the first two games of the Cup Final in 1980, the Islanders returned home having won 12 of 17 games. But the Coliseum had yet to give them a real home-ice advantage.
They split their two games at the Coliseum in each of their first two series, a three-games-to-one victory over the Los Angeles Kings in the first round and a four-games-to-one victory over the Boston Bruins in the quarterfinals. The Islanders had won two of three at the Coliseum in their semifinal win over the Buffalo Sabres, including a 5-2 victory in the deciding Game 6.
Then they won all three home games against the Flyers.
“I remember being probably as high as I’ve ever been before Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, with all the fanfare that goes on,” Clark Gillies told Newsday in April. “You’ve got all the TV people. The atmosphere is off the charts. Coming out for warmups was amazing. You’re trying to control your emotions so you don’t burn yourself out in the warmups. And then, coming out to start the game and the roar from the fans and the hair standing up on the back of your neck. I’ve never experienced anything like that and we got to experience that same feeling many, many times.”
Knowing exactly how intense the Islanders’ Cup Final debut at the Coliseum would be, coach Al Arbour cautioned his players not to let the emotions get the best of them.
“’Hey, just push all that good energy to your skating legs and shooting arms,’” Trottier said Arbour told the Islanders. “That’s what we did. It was good energy and we wanted to use it in a positive way. He goes, ‘I don’t care, bad bounce, bad referee call, the roof could be caving in, we’re just going to focus on our game. We’ve got to be more controlled.’ ”
The Islanders certainly were.
Duane Sutter was penalized for hooking at 1:01 of the first period but Lorne Henning, set up by Bob Bourne, opened the scoring with a shorthanded goal at 2:38.
Potvin, Trottier and Mike Bossy followed with power-play goals and the Islanders led 4-0 after the first period. Gillies and Potvin added two more power-play goals in the second period before the Flyers scored twice in the third period.
“My sense going into that game was, ‘Wow, if they win this game, they’re going to have a chance to go up 3-1 at home,’ which they did,” Calabria said. “They did what was needed to be done.”