Forty years, ago the Rangers tried to keep the Islanders from joining the NHL. Thirty years ago the Islanders won their fourth straight Stanley Cup. Twenty years ago, the Islanders won their last playoff series. Saturday, the Rangers likely forced the Islanders to open the playoffs in Pittsburgh this week, where they will face an uphill battle in trying to give the fans at Nassau Coliseum at least one more great memory as they prepare to move to Brooklyn in 2015.
The only way the Islanders can avoid the Penguins now is for Ottawa to lose Saturday night and again in the only Sunday NHL game, a make-up in Boston for the game that was postponed after the marathon bombing.
This year opponents are only intimidated by the physical play of Matt Martin, and the scoring of John Tavares (28 goals in 48 games). The Islanders scored two goals or fewer in six of their last eight games, and their one goal in the season finale was a bit of a fluke. Sabres Defenseman Andy MacDonald took what was almost a slapshot to the left of his own net to get it away from an oncoming Keith Aucoin and other Islanders. Goalie Ryan Macdonald came out of goal to his right to retrieve the puck and send it ahead, but the puck came off so hard that Aucoin got to hit first and put a shot between MacDonald’s legs as the keeper stumbled trying to retreat back to goal.
Unfortunately for the Islanders, that was it. They failed to score any other goals in regulation, failed to score even on a five-on-three power play in overtime, and were stuffed three times on shootouts to lose 2-1.
The Islanders are still heading to the playoffs for the first time in five years, but they might need Billy Smith back in goal if their offense does not get back to form. A trip to Pittsburgh Tuesday would be very difficult, with the Penguins setting the consecutive wins record this year and on the verge of having Sidney Crosby cleared to make them even better.
Islanders fans would love one last playoff series win in their final three seasons with the team to bring back even faint memories of one of the greatest lines in history with Clark Gillies at leftwing, Bryan Trottier at center, and Mike Bossy at rightwing. Perhaps most important, they were backed up by defenseman Denis Potvin, who led a “turtle defense” around Smith that would allow as many slap shots as a team wanted to take, but clear out any opposing player trying to get a rebound. Potvin fed 742 assists ahead to the front line, and they were almost unstoppable for four years. The four played together for a solid decade (1977-1986) and scored more than 1600 goals between them.
In 1972, the Islanders were taken as a 15th team in the NHL over the Rangers’ objections simply to block the World Hockey Association from putting a team there. They chose to put a map of the island on their logo. After losing 100 games their first two seasons (31-101-24), Gillies joined Potvin and not only led the Islanders into the playoffs but into a 3-game playoff against the hated Rangers from Manhattan.
The Islanders won both games in Madison Square Garden, the last one 11 seconds into overtime while Rangers fans were just getting seated again, to give the Islanders fans bragging rights in the team’s third year. Bragging rights in New York were enough for the Islander fans when the Penguins disposed of the Islanders in the first three games of the series. Then the miracle happened, when the Islanders came back to win the final four games to be one of only two teams in NHL history to rally from 3-0 to win a playoff series.
No NBA team has ever come back from 3-0, and the Boston Red Sox are the only team to do it in more than 130 years of major league baseball (2004 over Yankees) and the Toronto Maple Leafs were the only other NHL team to do it (1942). What is even more amazing, is the Islanders almost did it again in the very next series when they rallied from down three games to Philadelphia before rallying to force a seventh game.
Five years later the Islanders had added Smith, Trottier and Bossy to go with Potvin and Gillies, but it was Bobby Nystrom (center of photo) who scored in overtime to beat Philadelphia in Game 6 to take the 1980 Stanley Cup. Those four teams were so dominant that only once in 16 series were they even forced to a decisive final game – a 3-2 series win over the Penguins in 1982. They even swept Wayne Gretzky and his Edmonton Oilers in 1983, with Smith even throwing the goal backward to force a one-on-one shootout by Gretzky, which he stopped.
In 1984, Gretzky brought in a changing of the guard and finally ended the Islanders streak, but the memories are still there 30 years later for the fans who hope for just one more playoff series win from the team that literally put their island on the map.