From our recent special issue, we look at No. 3 on our list of the best teams in NHL history.
From the outside looking in, the casual observer might not think the 1982-83 New York Islanders were the best team the franchise has ever iced. But ask one of the best players in franchise history and he’ll beg to differ.
“I think we were a machine at that point,” said Hall of Fame defenseman Denis Potvin. “We were so grooved and so emotionally sharp. It was just such a joy to play; everything was automatic.”
When the season began, the Islanders were the favorite to win their fourth consecutive Stanley Cup and match the 1970s Montreal Canadiens, who won from ’76 through ’79. All of the 20 NHL experts polled by THN before the 1980 season picked the Islanders to win the Patrick Division and THN also named them as favorites to win the Cup.
The Islanders were stacked, led by one of the greatest two-way players in league history, the calming Bryan Trottier; the super-confident Mike Bossy, who seemed able to score at will; team captain and three-time Norris Trophy winner Potvin, a man who oozed confidence; all-time grinder Clark Gillies; and goaltender Billy Smith, seemingly able to will himself to victory. Behind the bench, the Islanders were helmed by coach Al Arbour; pulling the strings was GM Bill Torrey. All seven of those men are now in the Hall of Fame.
The supporting cast included John Tonelli, a gritty playmaker with a scorer’s touch, and 1981 Conn Smythe winner Butch Goring, along with top-six worthy forwards Brent and Duane Sutter, and the Bobs – Nystrom and Bourne.
But the campaign didn’t exactly go swimmingly. Potvin held out during the pre-season, looking for a better contract. A compromise was reached and the Islanders shot out of the gate, winning 11 of 13 contests. But the schedule didn’t make it easy on the team. The Isles played 34 games in 67 days to begin the season, a compact schedule that would have today’s players up in arms.
That schedule, nagging injuries and a certain level of complacency conspired to send the team into a funk that lasted much of the season. The Islanders won just four of 16 November games and four of 12 in December; that after winning Presidents’ Trophies and registering a plus-230 in goals the previous two seasons.
As the calendar turned from 1982 to ’83, many were saying the Islanders had reached their apex and were no longer the team to beat. The first game of the New Year was a loss to Pittsburgh that dropped the Islanders to second place in the division for the first time in three years. And it was their 16th defeat of the campaign, matching the team’s total from the season prior.
Arbour, the master tactician who always kept his guys humble, hadn’t settled on anything resembling set lines and the goaltending tandem of Smith – the reigning Vezina Trophy winner – and Rollie Melanson split games, with the latter actually finishing with superior numbers by season’s end. New York dipped as low as third in its division. To say there was dissension in the room may be a bit strong, but frustration among the players was at an all-time high. One thing that had disappeared was the complacency.
“I certainly felt I didn’t play like a first-team all-star during the first half of the season,” said Bossy, who had endured the longest goal drought of his career to that point, but still finished with 118 points and became the first player in NHL history to score 60-plus goals in three straight seasons, at the time.
In March things changed. And during the final six weeks of the season, the Islanders turned a corner and began playing a game reminiscent of Cup seasons past. Lines were set, injuries healed and the stars – although they’d been putting up what today would be outstanding numbers – began playing like stars again. The Islanders were back – and hungry.
“You would watch us play…and see the puck pursuit,” Potvin said of the team defense. “All of those things you talk about today: the gap between defense and forward, the work down low in our own zone. We were stifling.
“And on offense we were devastating. We could really create some offense. We were really good on the power play. I never had to look up and say, ‘Where am I moving the puck?’ All those things were boom-boom automatic. Everybody was grooved.”
That they were. The Islanders rolled into the post-season on a high.
In the first round they faced the Washington Capitals, whom they had battled for second in the division all season and finished just two points ahead of. The Caps boasted seven 20-goal scorers, but managed just a single win in the best-of-five series.
Then came the New York Rangers, who had dispatched of the division champs and second-overall Flyers in a three-game sweep, in the Patrick Division final. The two teams had played each other in the post-season three of the previous four years.
The Rangers were the glory team, playing under the bright lights of Manhattan with all the history that came with being an Original Six team, but were Cup-less since 1940. The bedroom-community Islanders were the dynasty team, winning three consecutive Cups on the heels of those great Canadiens teams.
Against the Blueshirts, the stars played well, but weren’t the difference. The Islanders’ depth took over the series. Bourne and the Sutters led the way. Bourne’s 12 points against the Rangers were a franchise record; his end-to-end rush on the Game 5 winner was the highlight of the six-game Islanders win.
“I’ve never done anything like that before,” Bourne said of his goal after the season. “When I got home I watched it 10 or 12 times…I’ll save that tape the rest of my life.”
With the Rangers once again relegated to an afterthought, the Islanders moved on to face the 50-victory, Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins in the Wales Conference final. This time the team’s stars shone. And Bossy shone brighter than any other.
The right winger tied a then NHL playoff record with nine goals in the series, punctuating it all with four markers in the deciding sixth game, an 8-4 trouncing. The series victory set up a marquee Cup final against the superstar-laden Edmonton Oilers.
Edmonton had set an NHL record, scoring 424 goals during the regular season, 122 more than the Isles and an average of 5.3 scores per contest. With 71 goals and 196 points, Wayne Gretzky had won the scoring title by a jaw-dropping 72 points. Edmonton’s murderers’ row also included Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Glenn Anderson, all of whom tallied 45-plus goals and 100-plus points. Defenseman Paul Coffey rounded out Edmonton’s top-five with 29 goals and 96 points of his own; four other Oilers also managed 19 or more goals.
The Islanders entered the Cup final with a point to prove.
“We want to beat (the Oilers) more than anything,” Gillies said before the series. “They think they’re the greatest thing since the invention of sliced bread.”
Added an excited Bourne: “The Oilers are so damn cocky. Edmonton doesn’t respect anyone. There isn’t any one team we want to beat more.”
And beat the Oilers they did.
New York swept the series in four games, scoring 17 goals along the way and holding the vaunted Edmonton attack to just six playing tough team defense. The Great One himself managed just four points, all of them assists. Fittingly, the top individual accolade went to the goalie as ‘Battlin’ Billy’ was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner, the fourth different recipient in four years for the Isles.
The 1983 Cup made the Islanders one of the most dominant teams ever. They made it back to their fifth final in a row in 1984, winning a record 19 consecutive post-season series en route, which only added to the argument. There they again met Edmonton, but the Oilers were simply too much; or, rather, the Islanders had had too much. Edmonton prevailed in five games to end to New York’s attempt at matching the 1950s Montreal Canadiens with five Stanley Cups in succession.
“There’s no question,” Potvin said when asked if the Islanders were simply worn out by the time the 1984 final rolled around. “Consider this: Montreal won five Cups by winning 10 playoff series. You couldn’t ask the NHL to make it more difficult.”
With an eye to penny-pinching, the league also put a 2-3-2 game schedule into effect in 1984, a measure meant to save the team’s money on travel.
“That was ridiculous,” Potvin said. “We had to spend eight days in Edmonton. (The fans) circled our hotel with pick-up trucks…day in and day out.”
The burnt out Islanders lost all three of those games.
“For us it was huge, because we were hurting, we were tired,” Potvin noted. “And then five consecutive finals. And we also played the 1981 Canada Cup, we were involved in all the All-Star Games.”
Potvin truly felt that Islanders team could have won a fifth title if circumstances had been a little different.
“I think we played 120 playoff games in five years,” Potvin said. “How many NHLers in history have played 120 playoff games? And we did it in five consecutive years.”
This is an excerpt from THN’s special issue, Greatest Teams of All-Time.