This One Struck Oil
By Joe Gergen, Newsday
BETWEEN THE regular season and the playoffs, the Islanders have participated in 2,156 games. Some of them have been among the most thrilling and exhausting in National Hockey League history. One - the four-overtime epic against the Washington Capitals that ended in the wee small hours of Easter Sunday, 1987 - rates high marks in both categories.
For reasons that cannot be satisfactorily explained, the Islanders have always excelled in sudden-death situations mandated by Stanley Cup competition. From their initial playoff series against the heavily favored Rangers in 1975 to their stunning upset of the defending champion Penguins in 1993, the team has an unrivaled record of 29-9 in extra periods. Included in that span is a remarkable comeback victory over the Penguins in the concluding game of a 1982 series, with John Tonelli accounting for the tying and winning goal, and a nerve-wracking triumph over the Rangers in 1984 settled by Ken Morrow's crawling shot from the right point.
Any of those would have been an acceptable choice for the most memorable game in club history. Add the contest that clinched the first of four consecutive Cups for the Islanders, the 5-4 struggle over the Flyers in 1980 achieved on Bobby Nystrom's goal at 7:11 in overtime of Game 6, for good measure. They tell much about the character of a team that created one of the NHL's last great dynasties.
As for myself, I have a different game in mind. It didn't require more than 60 minutes and it produced only one goal until the final 12 seconds of play. Instead of being the deciding game of a series, it was the first. But in much the same manner that Kirk Gibson's ninth-inning homer in the opener set an unmistakable tone for the rest of the 1988 World Series, the Islanders' 2-0 victory so deflated the Oilers that they were the victims of a stunning sweep in the 1983 Cup finals. It was, in this man's opinion, the game that defined a franchise.
Consider the circumstances. The Islanders had won the three previous championships and 15 consecutive playoff series when they alighted in Edmonton in May, 1983. Despite their experience, they weren't even favored in some quarters. The younger Oilers, led by Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, were a collection of the quickest and slickest skaters this side of Moscow and appeared to have been placed on Earth with the singular mission of scoring goals. They accounted for an unprecedented 424 during the regular season, 122 more than the Islanders' total.
The defending champs, of course, had been built on defense and the physical play of rugged forwards recruited mostly from the plains of western Canada. The Islanders did have a hole card in Mike Bossy, sniper extraordinaire from the province of Quebec. But, as if to emphasize the distinction between the teams, Bossy became feverish and weak from tonsillitis before Game 1 and had to be scratched from the lineup.
That left the Islanders even more reliant than usual on their resourcefulness, their tenacity, their grit. Also on Billy Smith, the goaltender whom the Edmonton Sun tried to unnerve with a front-page picture of the man in the center of a bulls-eye. The tabloid railed against Smith wielding his hockey stick like a broadsword, especially against the likes of Gretzky, and vowed he would pay the price. As usual, the goalie couldn't have cared less.
On the night of May 10, however, Smith saved his stick for more imporant matters. He needed to conserve his energy for the Oilers' assaults. Duane Sutter scored at 5:36 of the first period and the Islanders determined that one goal would be enough. Not until Morrow trickled a shot into an empty net at 19:48 of the third period was the team able to relax.
For the Oilers, it was their first shutout in 198 games, dating to a previous meeting with Smith during the 1981 regular season. Edmonton took 35 shots on goal and had at least that many foiled by the Islanders' defensemen and forwards. Later, they couldn't understand how they had failed.
"I think maybe it was the best loss we ever had," Gretzky marveled. It was an inadvertent compliment of the highest order.
"They must have played the last period with six [skaters]," said Oilers coach Glen Sather. "They were getting tired and we were coming. But we couldn't get a goal. When you get one, you usually get another."
But the home team never got that first one, never gave the 17,498 fans at Northlands Coliseum an excuse to rock the building and put additional pressure on the Islanders. They withstood a fusillade in the final minutes, culminating with Denis Potvin's tipping away a pass from Paul Coffey to Gretzky at the side of the net and starting the play that resulted in Morrow's empty-netter.
"It feels great," said Potvin, the defenseman who barely came off the ice in the third period. "It's the ultimate for a defenseman, to come into the Stanley Cup finals and beat the Edmonton Oilers, 2-0. It's the ultimate game."
Truth is, that's exactly what it was, even though all it did was give the Islanders a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. Bossy returned for Game 2 and the Islanders thwarted the Oilers in almost routine fashion in the next three games, winning by scores of 6-3, 5-1 and 4-2. One year later, Edmonton claimed the first of five Cups by upending the defenders in five games, but by then, the Islanders were a tired, injury-wracked team.
Consider the 1983 finals their last stand and Game 1 a moment in which they reached deep within and produced a magnificent effort against a team with potentially five or six Hall of Fame players. "Can you believe it?" center Bryan Trottier said. "Can you believe how well we played?"
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