The Islanders never would have enjoyed a dynastic four-straight Stanley Cup championship run had they not survived a genuine scare in the second round of the 1982 playoffs.
Locked in a tied 2-2 best-of-five playoff series with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the then two-time champs were on the ropes at the end of the second period as they trailed, 3-1.
Like many in the packed Coliseum, I thought that the series was about to be lost. That line of pessimism was based on the fact that Penguins goalie Michel Dion seemed virtually impregnable.
“That was the best game I ever played in goal,” Dion later allowed. “I never felt better.”
In those days, I handled between-periods interviews for SportsChannel, and after the second period, my guest was a Pittsburgh beat writer.
At the time, SportsChannel had a practice of giving all between-periods guests a gift. And since we had expected the favored Isles to win this series and move on to eventually win the Final Round, there was a stack of gifts left on a shelf in the interview room.
With the Isles abjectly behind by two goals, and with Dion playing so expertly, I mentioned to the Pitt writer that he might as well take all the gifts home since it appears that this would be our last game of the season.
Yes, the Penguins looked that good at that time.
The rest, of course, is glorious Islanders history.
Well after the half-way mark of the third period the Isles went on a power play. GM Bill Torrey wisely had acquired former Rangers defenseman Mike McEwen from the Colorado Rockies in March 1981 for his blueline corps.
Looking backward, it proved to be one of Torrey’s best deals. So, there was “Double M” working the point on that particular PP, and did McEwen ever come through!
During that man advantage, Mike Bossy took a slap-shot at Dion that was deflected by linemate Clark Gillies. Dion made the save but allowed a rebound. McEwen seized the moment and fired the loose puck over Dion with 5:27 remaining and the Isles still trailing by a goal.
The Penguins tightened the noose for the next three minutes, but then defenseman Gord Lane flipped the rubber into the Pitt zone. The visitors back liner Randy Carlyle was in a position to grab the puck but he peered over his shoulder to measure the Islanders forecheckers.
As luck would have it, the puck bounced over Carlyle’s stick and on to the ever-ready blade of John Tonelli‘s wand. Big John wasted no time whipping the rubber behind Dion at 17:39 of the third period. And the deadlock held through regulation time.
Still, the series was up for grabs as the teams skated on for the sudden death overtime. For more than six minutes into the extra session, the clubs exchanged back and forth chances.
Then it happened.
Tonelli finally sprung loose on a breakaway but Dion thwarted his shot while leaving yet another delicious rebound. This time, Bob Nystrom and Tonelli converged on the loose puck.
Nystrom relinquished his possession, leaving his linemate the opportunity to end the tension. Johnny T jammed the disk behind Dion at 6:19 of the overtime period enabling the Islanders to move on to the next round.
They then beat the Rangers in six games before meeting, and defeating, the Quebec Nordiques and, ultimately Vancouver for their Cup trifecta.
But it never would have happened without Tonelli’s heroics.
P.S. Fortunately my Pittsburgh writer guest only accepted one gift and that kind gesture left many more around for my guests, going through the Final round!
[Watch the Islanders Return to the Coliseum Saturday at 6:30 PM on MSG+ & MSG GO. Get the App Now]