How the Islanders Captured Their Fourth Cup

I was there on May 17, 1983 when the Islanders won their fourth straight Stanley Cup at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

Now, 35 years later — and looking backward — I still cannot believe it happened.

Beating the mighty Edmonton Oilers, 4-2, in that melodramatic match, the Isles became the only American team in history to win four consecutive championships.

What’s more — and no less amazing — they had put together an unreal string of 16 playoff series victories in a row.

No other team could make that statement; nor will any in the future. That, The Maven guarantees.

Perhaps even more arresting is the fact that they actually swept the revered firm of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson, Kevin Lowe, Grant Fuhr, Jari Kurri & Company.

That Oilers team was so good that I vividly recall feeling uneasy even after Al Arbour‘s skaters took a 3-0 lead in the series.

I attended the Marriott Hotel press luncheon a day before Game 4 and was stunned at the cockiness of Oilers leader Glen Sather who addressed the gathering.

“We may be down but far from out,” he warned the throng. Believe me, Slats was frighteningly confident.

In retrospect, Sather made it seem as if Edmonton had a three-game lead and not the Isles.

As for the Cup-clincher itself, the Islanders smacked the Visitors around in the first period, taking what seemed to be a commanding 3-0 lead.

Bryan Trottier, John Tonelli and Mike Bossy potted the goals. And that’s when The Maven created the expression, The Dreaded Three-Goal Lead.

And I was right.

Sure enough, the rampaging Oilers put fear in the hearts of the Nassau crowd.

Kurri slammed one past Bill Smith at just 35 seconds of the second period and Messier made it only a one-goal Islanders lead with 26 seconds left in the middle frame.

For me, the third period was excruciatingly exciting as Edmonton pressed over and over and over again for the tying goal. But Smitty stood fast like the Great Wall of China until the final minutes.

Finally, Not-So-Old-Reliable defenseman Ken Morrow relieved the tension with an open-netter with 69 seconds left in the third period.

When the red goal light flashed, it seemed as if the entire Coliseum exhaled all at once.

A few days later, my wife Shirley and I attended the Islanders’ victory dinner hosted by owner John Pickett. It was then that the oft-asked question was raised:

Just how great was this Islanders dynastic team?

Considering that it wound up winning an unprecedented 19 straight Cup series, one could conclude that it was the greatest of all-time.

What’s more is that the facts underline that claim. Consider the following:

They featured one of the all-time snipers in Bossy, the best two-way hitting center ever in Trottier, the best clutch goaltender in Smith, and more significant role players than any team in any era. Bob Bourne was the NHL’s fastest forward; Clark Gillies the most productive fighting left wing (when provoked); and Butch Goring, a fleet center who doubled as a penalty-killer checker-of-stars.

Whether Arbour was the best, second-best, or third-best coach of all time is a moot question. Suffice to say that Arbour was ideal for his team. He had played on Punch Imlach’s multi-championship Toronto Maple Leafs as well as the Chicago Blackhawks Cup-winners in 1961. He studied under masters and learned well.

“I remember something Arbour said to us the season after we’d won our first Cup,” recalled former Islanders defenseman Jean Potvin. “We’d played badly in a couple of games and lost them both, and Al was really upset with us.

“‘You should have won those games,’ he told us at practice one morning, and one of the guys said, “Geez, Al, you can’t expect us to win every game.’ And Al just got this hard look on his face and said, ‘WHY NOT?'”

In many ways, the Islanders of the early 1980s resembled the super-Canadiens who won five straight Stanley Cups between 1956-1960. There were no weak links in the lineup.

“They could play you any way you wanted to play them,” recalled the late Herb Brooks, who coached the rival Rangers at the time. “They had skill players like Bossy, Trottier and Potvin, tough guys like Garry Howatt and Nystrom. They could finesse with anyone or grind with the best of them.”

They were a better team than the Oilers of the late 1980s because of the equitable balance between offense, defense, and goaltending.

Edmonton boasted good netminding and a scary offense, but playing defense was not in the Oilers’ vocabulary; not for defensemen and not for checking forwards. It was a deficiency that was only partially remedied after high-scoring defenseman Coffey was traded to Pittsburgh.

By contrast, the Islanders’ defense was stout to the core. Denis Potvin was the best two-way defenseman of the post-Doug Harvey era and his sidekick, Stefan Persson, emerged as the most underrated solid backliner in the league.

Dave (Bammer) Langevin supplied the lusty bodychecks, while Gord Lane, Tomas Johnson, and Morrow all filled in nobly.

Management, headed by President-General Manager Bill Torrey and coach Arbour, was insightful, steady, and consistently superior, beginning in the late 1970s when the Islanders dynasty was developed.

[Stan Fischler Reflects on the Life of Bill Torrey]

The Islanders had become a power in 1978 and stronger in 1979, but in both years, were unable to reach the Stanley Cup Final.

Torrey realized there was a missing link. He required an experienced, digging center to supplement the vigorous Trottier. Another requirement was a stay-at-home defenseman who could complement the oft-rushing Potvin.

Both pieces fit neatly into the puzzle before the trade deadline in March 1980. Torrey dealt right wing Billy Harris and defenseman Dave Lewis to Los Angeles for Goring. It was the perfect fit. With Goring’s arrival, the Islanders went on a winning tear that carried into the 1980 playoffs.

Canadian hockey player Butch Goring of the New York Islanders skates on the ice, the early 1980s. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

Previously, they had been accused of being too tight in crunch situations, but they responded in series wins over Los Angeles, Boston, and Buffalo before reaching the finals against the Philadelphia Flyers.

For the first time, the Cup was within their grasp and the Islanders came through with a 4-2 series win over Philadelphia. Nystrom, who scored the sudden-death winner, could prove to be as effective a clutch performer as Maurice Richard had been with the Canadiens.

In 1981, the Islanders marched past the Maple Leafs, Oilers and Rangers before disposing of Minnesota in a five-game final. They got a major scare in 1982 when Pittsburgh led by two goals in the decisive fifth game of the semifinals, but the Islanders displayed their patented comeback qualities and took the series in overtime on Tonelli’s goal.

They then edged the Rangers in six games and wiped out Quebec in four as they did Vancouver in the finals. But their most impressive run took place a year later. They topped Washington (four games), the Rangers (six games), and the Bruins (six games) before taking on the powerful Oilers, led by Gretzky.

The combination of Smith’s superlative goaltending and timely scoring was too much for Edmonton. The Islanders swept the series in four straight.

In many ways, the Islanders’ “Drive for Five” in 1984 was even more heroic. Fighting their way through three brutally difficult preliminary rounds, Arbour’s sextet was riddled with injury by the time it took on the Oilers in the finals.

The team split the first two games at Nassau Coliseum and then moved on to Edmonton for a resumption of the series. At this juncture, a quirk in playoff scheduling turned the series in the Oilers’ favor.

Instead of playing the new two games in Edmonton and then returning east, the teams were required to play three games at Northlands Coliseum. The move clearly favored the Oilers in many ways and they exploited the Islanders’ injuries to wrest the Cup away from the New Yorkers in five games.

Not only was the Islanders’ run of 19 consecutive playoff series victories remarkable, it demonstrated a staying power, combined with high-quality performance, that has been unmatched at any time in history.

Additionally, the Islanders oozed the kind of class that few other teams could boast except for the Canadiens of the Blake-Richard era. There were none of the wise-guy braggadocios that was part of the Oilers’ persona and no running from reporters in defeat, a trait that characterized so many other teams.

This all culminated with that glorious triumph 35 years ago.

[Read More From the Maven]