To some observers– mostly Islanders fans– this was the greatest hockey game ever played.
To other critics, it was the best of any Met Area showdowns. And there were plenty of reasons to underline the point.
For one thing, the Islanders-Rangers rivalry had reached the white heat level by the 1983-84 season. Having won four straight Cups, the Isles were hell-bent on a Drive For Five. On the flip-side, the Blueshirts were an up-and-coming team with 1980 Gold Medal-coach Herb Brooks making magic behind the bench.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Brooks had taken on an almost mystical persona by this time. His use of a hybrid North American-European style had the Islanders guessing. What I remember vividly was seeing passes from the goal line all the way up to center ice on a regular basis. This had been unheard of.)
Adding further spice to the best-of-five series was the fact that the Nassaumen had beaten the Rangers in the 1981 semifinals, four games to none, and did it again in the 1982 quarterfinals, four games to two, and once more in 1983, by a similar count.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: I covered both of those series, and it was apparent that, given a break or two, it could have gone the Rangers’ way.
As an added boost, the Isles signed 1984 Olympic heroes Patrick Flatley and Pat LaFontaine, each of whom would be a factor in the upcoming New York-New York showdown.
This time, it appeared as if the Seventh Avenue Skaters would prevail despite losing the opener 4-1 at Nassau Coliseum.
Brooks’ skaters stunned Al Arbour’s club 3-0 in the second match and then destroyed the Isles 7-2 at the Garden.
With Game 4 at MSG as well, the Isles appeared ready for a KO.
Leading 1-0 into the third period, the Rangers allowed a John Tonelli goal to tie the game, whereupon the visitors went on to win 4-1.
(THE MAVEN: Tonelli easily was the most underrated Islanders hero from the first Cup right through to this series.
The series was knotted at two wins apiece, and if that didn’t create enough of a furor, the Patrick Flatley-Barry Beck episode merely was adding gasoline to the fireworks.
In game four, the Isles’ rookie torpedoed the hulking Rangers’ defenseman– considered the most intimidating and best of the Blueshirt backliners– with a bodycheck that sidelined the Ranger for the series.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Beck and Brooks never quite got along. A Craig Woolf story in the New York Times—Woolf was the only witness—had Brooks calling Beck a “coward” at a Rangers practice.)
Not surprisingly, arguments flared on both sides as to whether it was a clean or dirty check. Not that any more fuel had to be added to the conflagration, but outspoken Isles goalie Bill Smith publicly gloated over the elimination of Beck from Brooks’ lineup.
(MAVEN: The next morning I was walking along Broadway near 100th Street when a pal, Pete Myers—a longtime Rangers fan—virtually accosted me, wailing over Smitty’s anti-Beck outburst. He was about to beat up on the picture of Flatley in the back page of the Daily News. I beat an orderly retreat.)
Thus, the stage was set for the climactic game five at the barn off Hempstead Turnpike.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: This game was impossible to figure, mostly because the Rangers were relishing their upstart roll and Brooks was using the same hypnotic tactics that propelled Team USA to the Gold in 1980. Confidence was not the order of the day in the home team dressing room.)
Sure enough, the Rangers catapulted to a lead on Ron Greschner’s goal. As the clock ticked down the end of the first period, it appeared that Rangers goalie Glen Hanlon would exit with a one-goal lead. But with only seconds remaining, Mike Bossy stole the rubber from Rangers defenseman Tom Laidlaw and beat Hanlon to knot the count at one. Nobody scored in the middle frame.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Bear in mind that I was working the game—along with Jiggs McDonald and Ed Westfall for SportsChannel, the Isles’ home network. I don’t have to tell you who we were rooting for, but I will tell you that we felt that the next goal would be the series winner.)
When the Isles’ Swedish defenseman Tomas Jonsson beat Hanlon at 7:56 of the third frame, we figured that was the clincher. Were we in for a surprise.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: The SportsChannel studio at Nassau Coliseum was just a few steps away from the Rangers’ dressing room. By this time, “scratched” visiting players such as Beck and Nick Fotiu had crammed themselves into our room to watch the remainder of the game on our little monitor. Much as I was pals with Nick and liked Barry, I was very uneasy about their presence. It severely limited our ability to cheer both inwardly, outwardly, and physically. However, they were too big to push around, so I kept my mouth shut; in this case, discretion was the better part of valor.)
Desperate for the tying goal with less than a minute to go, Brooks had pulled goalie Hanlon and with 39 seconds left, Don Maloney chopped a rebound at shoulder height past Smith.
Although the Islanders bellowed that it was scored illegally, the goal stood, and the game went into overtime.
(MAVEN: We were thoroughly deflated in the studio; stunned to the very core. Adding insult to injury, Beck and Fotiu returned to the studio for the sudden death period. This time we really wanted to kick them out, but the game had resumed and twice it appeared that the Rangers had it sewed up.)
First, Bob Brook broke through the Islanders defense and was foiled by Smith, and then Mikko Leinonen fanned on a shot as he stood at the edge of the goal mouth.
(MAVEN: It just seemed like a matter of time before the surging Rangers beat Smitty. Meanwhile, Beck and Fotiu continued to annoy us with their shouting.)
The end was almost anti-climactic. The Isles moved the puck into the Rangers’ end, whereupon Tonelli appeared to trip Rangers’ defenseman Reijo Ruotsalainen.
(MAVEN: Objectively speaking—if that’s possible—it was a penalty; at least by the book.)
There was no whistle, and Tonelli worked the puck free along the left boards, and eventually, it skidded over to Ken Morrow, who was stationed at the right point. The 1980 Olympic hero got the pass from Brent Sutter and sent one of his patented “knuckleballs” goalward. It appeared to be a seeing-eye puck, making its way through a maze of players before it beat the screened Hanlon at 8:56.
(MAVEN: We let Beck and Fotiu exit hastily until they were out of earshot before bellowing in the highest of high glee. When I interviewed Morrow post-game, he echoed our very thoughts when he concluded, “What I feel right now, more than anything, is relief.”)
CONCLUSION: The newspaper Newsday had as good a summation of the game in one word than anything: “EPIC!”