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Puck Dynasty: Looking back at Islanders' championship seasons

New York Islanders right winger Bobby Nystrom exults

New York Islanders right winger Bobby Nystrom exults after scoring the overtime goal that clinched the 1980 Stanley Cup against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Nassau Coliseum on May 24, 1980. Photo Credit: Newsday / David L. Pokress

The goal that started a dynasty on Long Island began with a play that made Al Arbour wince.

Lorne Henning recalled a few years ago that his pass to spring John Tonelli into the Flyers' zone about seven minutes and change into overtime of Game 6 of the 1980 Stanley Cup Final was the sort of dangerous neutral-zone play that Arbour "said he would have choked me if we hadn't scored."

Instead, there were bear hugs, champagne and the start of something the hockey world -- or even the pro sports world -- has not seen since. Tonelli threw a centering pass, Bob Nystrom deflected it past Pete Peeters and at 7:11 of overtime on May 24, 1980, a dynasty was born.

The names are etched in every Islanders fan's memory: Trottier. Bossy. Potvin. Smith. Arbour. Torrey. One by one they came to an expansion team that suffered through its infancy, grew in stature in year three when J.P. Parise's overtime goal knocked out their big brothers from Manhattan, and then came close to reaching the pinnacle of the NHL in 1978 and 1979, only to be knocked off by inferior teams, including their hated rival Rangers in the 1979 semifinals.

By 1980, the Islanders were ready to take the mantle from the Canadiens, who had strung together four straight Cup victories of their own. They were not as dominant in the regular season as they'd been in the previous two seasons, but they were battle-tested -- and when Bill Torrey traded original Islander Billy Harris and defenseman Dave Lewis to the Kings for 10-year NHL veteran Butch Goring in March, the Isles added an unlikely weapon to their playoff arsenal.

The first three rounds were formalities in the 1980 tournament, as the Islanders lost four total games in dispatching the Kings, Bruins and Sabres. The Flyers, who had won the Patrick Division that season, were a different matter; it also was the Isles' first time finally reaching a Final.

Denis Potvin scored on the power play in overtime of Game 1 -- the Islanders' fourth OT victory of the postseason -- and the Isles dominated Games 3 and 4 at the Coliseum, including a 5-for-5 power play in a 6-2 Game 3 win.

Back at a sweltering Coliseum for a Saturday afternoon Game 6, the Islanders took a 4-2 lead into the third period. The building rocked in anticipation, but the Flyers tied it up barely six minutes into the third.

Smith, who took over the starting goaltender's spot from Chico Resch at the start of the playoffs, stood tall to get things to OT. Henning to Tonelli to Nystrom, two of the three original Islanders from a 12-win season back in 1972-73, and the party had begun.

Did they know it would be a full presidential term before the party would end?

 

Let's make it two in a row

The next season might not stand out so much 33 years later, but that's because the reigning champions were so dominating, so focused. Only 18 losses in 80 regular-season games. Mike Bossy scored 68 goals to lead the league. Bryan Trottier had 103 points.

And the 1981 playoff was, simply, a foregone conclusion. The Islanders dropped only three games along the way, two to an upstart team from Edmonton with the league's leading scorer, Wayne Gretzky.

There was a resounding sweep of the Rangers in the semis to allow the Isles to put the 1979 disappointment to bed. And a five-game rout of the Minnesota North Stars, culminating in another skate around the Coliseum ice with the Stanley Cup. Goring, the last piece of the 1980 puzzle, had 10 goals in 18 playoff games to earn Conn Smythe honors.

There were, of course, changes along the way. Torrey's high draft picks gave way to success and picks later in each round, but growing from within was the core of the Islanders.

Opening-round trouble, then Cup No. 3

Rollie Melanson supplanted Resch as Smith's backup by the 1981-82 season. A pair of rugged young brothers from an Alberta farm, Duane and Brent Sutter, provided forward depth and pushed out loyal vets such as original Islander Garry Howatt.

But the headliners remained the same, better than they'd been. Bossy posted a franchise-record 147 points, second only to that Gretzky kid. The Islanders as a team had a franchise-record 54 wins and 118 points, primed for another dominating run.

This time, though, the Islanders nearly lost their footing looking ahead for the finish line. The unheralded Penguins, a sub-.500 team in the regular season, had the Isles in serious trouble in the best-of-five opening round.

It happened at the Coliseum, naturally. A 2-2 series and a 3-1 deficit after two periods threatened the Islanders in a big way. As the minutes ticked on in that third period, the Isles threw everything they had at goaltender Michel Dion, and they finally broke through. Mike McEwen's power-play goal at 14:33 gave the Islanders life and Tonelli tied it with only 2:27 left.

Tonelli was there again in OT. This time his setup for Nystrom ended up with Tonelli jamming the winner home.

"We were lucky there,'' Nystrom recalled not long ago, "and thank goodness for that.''

There would be no more hiccups that spring. The Islanders dispatched the Rangers in six games -- the new NHL playoff format that season changed from all 16 teams facing off in a big tournament to an East-West format -- and then a sweep of the Quebec Nordiques in the Wales Conference finals.

The final was the Bossy show. Another sweep, this one over the Canucks. The Isles scored 18 goals in that series and Bossy had seven of them to earn playoff MVP honors.

 

Crowning the dynasty

By 1982-83, other teams were starting to rise. Gretzky and the Oilers were dominant in the Campbell Conference and the Flyers and Bruins were revived in the Wales. The Isles finished second in their division to Philly, focusing more on keeping pucks out of the net than piling them up in their opponent's goal. Bossy had 60 goals for the third straight season, but the bigger honor was Smith and Melanson giving up the fewest in the league.

That would play a part in the fourth Cup. The Islanders were focused from the outset of the 1983 tournament, dispatching the Caps in four and then the Rangers, yet again, in six. Bossy took charge in the conference finals against the Bruins, scoring nine goals in the six-game win, four in the series clincher.

Meanwhile, the Oilers had lost only one game on their march to a showdown between the old guard and the new guard of the NHL.

The Slash is what many remember from that Islanders-Oilers final: Smith, the cantankerous one who felt it was disingenuous to shake hands after a series ended, sweeping his goal stick around to catch Gretzky on the ankle in Game 2.

Truth be told, it was Smith's goaltending that already had won the Islanders the series. He shut out Gretzky and the Oilers in Game 1 in Edmonton, and Game 2 already was long decided when Smith whacked The Great One in the third period.

The two games at the Coliseum were more of the same: Smith in top form and the Islanders frustrating Gretzky to no end. The sweep and fourth Cup, staving off the new era, stands as the most impressive of the Isles' dynasty. With no goals and only four assists in the series, Gretzky came back with a vengeance to win in the subsequent years.

 

The Epilogue

The cracks showed a bit more in 1983-84, the drive for five. The Islanders still won the Patrick Division, but only 11 points separated them and the fourth-place Rangers, their first-round opponents. Bossy topped 50 goals for the seventh straight season, but both he and Trottier missed time with injuries. Smith split the regular-season goaltending duties with Melanson.

One more playoff battle with the Rangers, this time in the opening round, nearly ended the dynasty early. Only Ken Morrow, who went from Team USA's Olympic Miracle on Ice to the dynasty without pause, saved the Islanders with his screened OT winner from off the side boards in Game 5 at the Coliseum.

Aided by a couple of teenagers, Pat LaFontaine and Patrick Flatley, who joined the team late in the regular season and gave a much-needed jolt of new energy, the Islanders got past the Caps and Canadiens and into a fifth straight Stanley Cup Final. The Oilers were waiting.

The teams split the first two in Uniondale, with Clark Gillies' hat trick propelling a 6-1 Game 2 win on May 12, 1984, just shy of four years since Nystrom's OT goal started it all.

The Isles never made it back to the old barn, losing three in Edmonton. The last great dynasty of pro sports -- four straight championships, 19 consecutive playoff series won -- ended.

And now, 30 years after that last Stanley Cup Final game, the Coliseum fades out this season. The greats of that team will have their banners hanging at Barclays Center next fall, but nothing will be able to replicate what went down in four consecutive glorious springs at Nassau Coliseum.

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