(Second of a six-part series commemorating the 40th anniversary of the 1981 Stanley Cup Champions: part one is here)
The 1980-81 NHL season offered the Islanders a chance to answer the question posed of any champion: could they repeat? Freed from years of whispers about choking and collapsing, and with their captain Denis Potvin healthy and ready to go, it seemed that nothing could stop them but themselves, despite the presence of several competitive clubs. But the team stumbled out of the gate, at one point falling to 4-5-3 before a fifteen-game unbeaten streak (remember, ties were ties then) pushed them to 17-5-5 by early December: they were 24-7-8 by the end of the calendar year.
By that time Mike Bossy had scored 38 goals in 40 games. He had dreams that he would match Maurice “Rocket” Richard’s record of 50 goals in 50 games, set in the 1944-45 season, which was only 50 games long (the first time anyone had scored 50 goals in a season). Even with ten goals in the next eight games, Bossy was still short of the record when he failed to score in game 49 against Detroit. He had to watch as Los Angeles’s Charlie Simmer nearly stole his thunder when the Kings’ winger scored a hat trick in his 50th game to bring his total to 49, just one short of the magic 50, hours before Bossy was to take to the ice for the Isles’ game 50, versus the Quebec Nordiques. Let Bossy tell the story:
Actually, Bossy had a chance for goal number 51 seconds later when Quebec pulled its netminder, but he rested content with setting up Bryan Trottier for the empty-net tally.
One would have thought that the Islanders would just continue to motor along, meeting or exceeding expectations, especially after Bossy’s milestone effort. But Bill Torrey was not quiet. The development of goalie Rollie Melanson made fan-favorite netminder Glenn “Chico” Resch expendable (as was also the case with another goaltender in the system, Richard Brodeur, who was traded to Vancouver before the start of the season). Meanwhile, the emergence of Billy Carroll as a solid, scrappy center rendered Steve Tambellini, who could score but who was weak defensively, available. What may have spurred Torrey to act, however, was the team’s mediocre performance in the wake of Bossy’s 50-in-50 achievement. Over the next seventeen games the Isles managed only a 7-7-3 record with a GAA of 3.76.
It was time to shake things up.
On March 10, 1981 (the first anniversary of the Goring trade), Torrey traded Resch and Tambellini for former Rangers defenseman Mike McEwen and goalie Jari Kaarela. The trade helped both teams shore up weak spots, and if McEwen was not Goring, he would nevertheless become a contributor during the playoffs as a puck-moving defenseman. The Isles’ defense tightened up, allowing only 2.54 GAA the rest of the season. Torrey had made his point: the team finished on a 9-1-3 run as it roared back to clinch first place overall in the regular season standings.
Player performances suggested just how solid the team was. Bossy was unable to maintain his torrid goal-scoring pace, finishing with 69 goals, seven short of Phil Esposito’s 1970-71 record. That was as many as he had scored in 1978-79 (and represented his career-high). His linemate Bryan Trottier once more topped the 100-point plateau, with Clark Gillies, Bob Bourne, and Denis Potvin recording over 75 points. Andres Kallur finished second to Bossy with 36 goals, with Bourne, Gillies, and Trottier all tallying over thirty times. Trottier led the way with 72 assists, followed by Potvin, Stefan Persson, and Bossy contributing over 50 helpers apiece. Duane Sutter struggled through an injury-filled season (the most seriously injured of any Isles player), but his teammates picked up the slack, chipping in totals that individually were modest but collectively made the Islanders powerful offensively.
The Isles led the league in scoring with 355 goals (St. Louis finished second with 352); they finished fourth with 260 goals against, some 28 goals behind league-leader Montreal. While they led the league in points, both St. Louis and Montreal had superior seasons as well, with several other teams not far behind. If the Islanders were favored to win a second Cup, they were not an overwhelming choice.
The proof would come in the playoffs.
Follow Brooks on Twitter at @BrooksDSimpson