Hindsight often allows us to foreshadow in ways that make us all feel smart. Such is the case with the Islanders’ 1981 quarterfinal duel with the Edmonton Oilers. It came at a time when the media loved to argue about who was the best center in hockey, Wayne Gretzky or Bryan Trottier, pitting Gretzky’s offensive brilliance against Trottier’s solid all-around play. Gretzky was not quite yet the goal scorer than Mike Bossy was, although that debate would soon heat up. Outside of Gretzky, however, the Oilers were at best a team of potential, and no one knew how that would turn out.
That was not the case with the Islanders. Having easily disposed of the Maple Leafs, the players now wondered what they would have to do to gain the attention of a media enraptured by Gretzky’s exploits. Which team was the defending champion, after all?
The Oilers entered the 1981 playoffs carried by Gretzky, whose 164 points led the NHL (and broke Phil Esposito’s 1970-71 record of 152 points). Jari Kurri had 75 points followed by Mark Messier with 63 points, respectable but not breathtaking totals. In short, Gretzky notwithstanding, it was the Islanders who were as a team the offensive machine heading into this encounter. Nor were the Oilers sound defensively: they were an under-.500 team at 25-35-16, the worst squad to make it into the second round. However, that was a story in itself: the Oilers had swept the Montreal Canadiens in a three game series where only one game was close, with Gretzky dominating (he scored or assisted on eleven of the Oilers’ fifteen goals in the series).
Afterwards Gretzky declared to New York reporters that the Canadiens were “the greatest team in hockey”— just the message he did not want to send to the defending champions, who still believed that they were not getting the respect that they deserved. Al Arbour made sure that Gretzky’s quote became bulletin-board material in the Isles’ dressing room, as Stan Fischler later reported.
The Islanders rather easily handled the Oilers in the first two games in Nassau Coliseum by scores of 8-2 and 6-3. The Islanders’ leading scorers against Toronto, Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy, were relatively quiet in Game One (three assists between them), but strong showings by Denis Potvin (2G, 1A), Butch Goring (1G, 2A) and steady defense carried the day. In Game Two the Oilers kept up with the Islanders through two periods, but Potvin’s third power play goal of the game proved to be the game winner, with Bossy and Trottier closing out the scoring.
By this time the Isles were becoming irritated with the Oilers. Mike Bossy later recalled that during the game they could hear the Oilers’ bench singing “Here we go, Oilers, here we go.” And so the Oilers went … down in the series, 2-0.
Here’s Game One:
Here’s Game Two:
Through the first two games the Islanders had held Gretzky to a goal and an assist, leaving him tied with Hector Marini in total series scoring. The Oilers’ superstar center broke loose at home in Game Three with a hat trick in Edmonton’s 5-2 win. After the game Gretzky handled the media as well as he had handled the puck, commenting to reporters that ”we worked hard because we see the Islanders always work hard, even when they lose or are behind. That’s the mark of a champion club, and maybe that’s just another thing we’ve learned from playing a great team like the Islanders.”
Clearly the Great One had learned something about talking to the press.
The home boys hoped to draw even in the series in Game Four: Al Arbour went with Rollie Melanson in net, his only start of the 1981 postseason. This time the teams traded two power play goals, with Edmonton tying the game in the third period. Overtime proved to be the Islanders’ time, especially Ken Morrow’s time, as he scored his second OT winner in as many years on the road in a critical game (aren’t they all critical in the playoffs?).
Here’s Game Four:
Back at Nassau Coliseum with a chance to bring the series to a close, the Islanders stumbled badly as the Oilers scored in the second and third periods to take a 4-2 lead en route to a 4-3 victory. According to Stan Fischler, Oilers’ defenseman Kevin Lowe later boasted, “We had put the fear of God into the Islanders. Going back to Edmonton, they knew darn good and well that they had a series on their hands.”
Perhaps Lowe exaggerated. If the Islanders had anything to worry about, it was their own level of play and effort.
None other than Marini opened the scoring in Game Six: the Isles broke a 1-1 tie in the second on goals by Anders Kallur and Bob Nystrom. Messier closed the gap to a goal in the third before Duane Sutter and Mike McEwen took advantage of sloppy defensive play by the Oilers to close out the scoring in the third to claim a 4-2 series win. None other than Billy Smith assisted on McEwen’s goal, the first of two postseason helpers in his career.
Denis Potvin led the way for the Islanders in this series offensively and defensively: his six goals and ten points placed him just behind Bossy (4G, 7A) and ahead of Trottier (3G, 5A). Clark Gillies, Goring, and Marini rounded out the top six (Marini’s 2G 3A performance in four games helped him record nine points in nine games that playoff year). For the Oilers, Gretzky and Glenn Anderson tallied ten points apiece.
You can see all the goals scored in the series here:
In retrospect, of course, everyone now claims to see what was coming. Gretzky smashed all sorts of scoring records the next year, but the Oilers stumbled badly against the Kings in the 1982 playoffs before advancing to the Final in 1983, where the Isles defeated them. Those experiences doubtless were valuable in helping the Oilers finally claim the Cup in 1984 on their way to establishing themselves as a near-dynasty. However, in 1981 they proved to be the peskiest of foes that the Islanders would face: that the series was as close as it was may be due to the Islanders being a tad overconfident for once in the postseason. They would not let anyone get that close for the remainder of the 1981 playoffs.
They couldn’t afford to rest on their laurels, anyway. Next up: the New York Rangers.
You can reach Brooks on Twitter at @BrooksDSimpson.