The Underdogs Have Their Day
For much of the 1979-80 season, it looked like the Islanders were destined for the ranks of the nearly great. Such teams can be brilliant for extended periods, but they ultimately fail when the stakes are highest, descending slowly into mediocrity under the weight of repeated disappointment.
Still reeling from the previous spring's shocking playoff ouster at the hands of the New York Rangers, the Islanders stumbled to a 6-11-4 start. Beset with injuries and just plain underachieving, the team saw even its high points undermined, such as the night in Colorado that Bill Smith became the first NHL goalie to be credited with scoring a goal. But that historic tally wasn't enough to avert an embarrassing 7-4 loss to the lowly Rockies.
One year after winning the regular-season points title, the Islanders finished sixth among all NHL teams, 25 points behind the Philadelphia Flyers. The 1979-80 regular season gave the Isles their first losing road record in four years and their lowest goal total in just as long. They didn't even get above .500 until mid-January.
There were some glimmers of hope: Defenseman Ken Morrow arrived to shore up the blue line, fresh from his gold-medal performance with the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. Butch Goring was acquired to add more scoring punch and penalty killing expertise, and the team went unbeaten in its final 12 regular-season games. Nevertheless, the Islanders found themselves in the underdog's position for most of the playoffs.
The first-round opponent was Goring's old team, the Los Angeles Kings. Most observers expected the Isles to dispense of the Kings before falling to a superior opponent in the second round, or at best the third. The Isles stuck with the script in the first game, winning 8-1 behind Bryan Trottier's hat trick. But the Kings turned the tables in game two, whipping the Isles 6-3 and driving Glenn Resch from the net. This game marked the beginning of the end of coach Al Arbour's goaltender rotation, at least in the playoffs, paving the way for Smith's entry to the Hall of Fame and Resch's departure to Colorado.
Game three was a nail-biter, as the Isles came back from a 3-1 deficit to win in overtime on Morrow's goal. Game four was all Isles, despite an injury to Mike Bossy that forced the untested Alex McKendry into the lineup. He responded with two goals.
When it became clear that the second-round opponent would be the Boston Bruins, many picked this series to be the Isles' Waterloo. After all, the big, bad Bruins had amassed 105 points during the regular season, and were stacked with tough guys like Terry O'Reilly and Mike Milbury. On the other side of the coin, the Islanders were thought to be intimidated by a physical opponent. The Isles' marshmallow reputation was gained two seasons earlier during a surprise playoff ouster by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
This time, however, the Islanders turned a supposed playoff grave into a foundation for greatness. Whenever O'Reilly tried to intimidate, Clark Gillies was there with the counterpunch. Jethro pounded the Boston tough in a series of heavyweight bouts, battering the Bruins' spirit as well. The Islanders captured the first three quarterfinal games en route to a 4-1 series win.
Next up were the Buffalo Sabres, the second-best team in the NHL during the regular season. Once again, the Isles roared to a 3-0 advantage before dropping games four and five and falling behind 2-0 in game six. But the Islanders displayed the poise that would become their dynasty's trademark, scoring five unanswered goals to earn their first trip to the Stanley Cup finals.
As expected, the final opponent was Philadelphia. In addition to finishing 25 points better than the Isles during the regular season, the Flyers had amassed a record 35-game unbeaten streak in 1979-80. But the Islanders were unimpressed and once again took a commanding series lead. Down three games to one, the Flyers struck back hard for a 6-3 win in game five. Win or lose, game six was to be the Isles' final game of the season at Nassau Coliseum.
In a violent, nationally televised contest that featured 94 penalty minutes, the Islanders carried a 4-2 lead into the final period. The building was electric with anticipation, but Philly short-circuited the home team's hopes by dominating the third session. The score was quickly tied and the Flyers came close to winning several times before overtime was forced.
The 15-minute break between periods seemed like an eternity, as did the first seven minutes of OT. With each tick of the clock, the unsavory prospect of a decisive game seven in Philadelphia loomed larger. As Kathy Blumenstock of Sports Illustrated wrote, "And now, as 14,995 long suffering Long Islanders look on in horror Saturday afternoon, there are tell-tale signs of throat grabbing out on the slushy ice -- a swimming pool, really -- in the mercilessly muggy Coliseum.... And as the OT begins, Islander Goaltender Billy Smith, who had played poorly in Game 5 and not much better in the regulation time of Game 6, looks so shaky that he doesn't seem capable of stopping a basketball, let alone a hockey puck...."
Then, at 7:11 of the extra period, fortune finally looses its grip from the Islanders' throat as Bob Nystrom tips a John Tonelli pass through Flyer goalie Pete Peeters and into the history books.
Ironically, Nystrom had been hurt earlier and wasn't sure he'd be able to make it back into the game. But, like his team, Nystrom saved the best for when things looked the worst.
Regular Season Record: 39 wins, 28 losses, 13 ties, 91 points, 281 goals for, 247 goals against, second place in the Patrick Division, sixth overall.
Playoff Record: 15 wins, 5 losses (6-1 in overtime.)
Leading Goal Scorer, Regular Season: Mike Bossy (51)
Leading Goal Scorer, Playoffs:Bryan Trottier (12)
Assists Leader, Regular Season: Bryan Trottier (62)
Assists Leader, Playoffs: Bryan Trottier (17)
Points Leader, Regular Season: Bryan Trottier (104)
Points Leader, Playoffs: Bryan Trottier (29, most in 1980 playoffs.)
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