The 1981 Stanley Cup Final pitted the New York Islanders against the upstart Minnesota North Stars: the league’s defending champion as well and top regular season club against a North Stars squad that had shown promise in the previous year’s playoffs (advancing to the semifinals) before breaking through in a series of upsets all over higher-seeded teams. Steve Payne, Bobby Smith, and rookie goal-scoring sensation Dino Ciccarelli spearheaded the team’s offense, while Gilles Meloche and rookie Don Beaupre split goaltending duties. It was a young team that seemed to find itself in the postseason. Nevertheless, the Islanders were overwhelming favorites, and justifiably so.
Game 1 at Nassau Coliseum started off as something of a challenge for the Islanders. Leading 1-0 as the result of an Anders Kallur tally, the team found itself having to kill a five-minute major penalty to Bob Bourne. However, it was Bryan Trottier, first converting a pass from Billy Carroll followed by setting up Kallur, who took advantage of the man disadvantage en route to a 3-0 lead at the end of the first period.
Carroll added a goal in the second and Wayne Merrick scored twice in the third to seal the 6-3 win in a game that was not that close.
For the CBC broadcast of Game 1, go here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cXDLi6XBUTo
Game 2 proved a much more competitive contest. Again the Isles jumped out to a 3-1 lead with Mike Bossy, Bob Nystrom, and Denis Potvin responding to the opening goal by Ciccarelli in a penalty-filled first period. The North Stars scored once in the second period and only thirty seconds into the third to tie the contest before Potvin, Ken Morrow, and Bossy put the game out of reach as both teams frequently visited the penalty box, a sign that there was no love lost between the two squads.
Here’s Jiggs McDonald and Ed Westfall with the Game 2 broadcast: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvEPnzLDlWE
The series shifted to Minnesota’s Met Center for the next two games. The North Stars, inspired by the home crowd, took a 3-1 first period lead in Game 3. The Isles seized the lead in the second period on a goal by Nystrom followed by Butch Goring lighting the lamp twice. Minnesota evened the score early in the third period, only to see the Isles strike back quickly. Bossy scored, then Goring completed his hat trick. Ciccarelli’s 14th goal of the playoffs drew Minnesota within one before Trottier put the game out of reach with the empty-netter with less than a minute to go.
The CBC’s broadcast of Game 3 is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhyVbZFdXAs
Although the Isles were up 3-0 in the series, the North Stars were relentless, and in Game 4 they finally broke through.
The teams were tied at two goals apiece heading into the third period, with the Islanders getting goals from Gord Lane and Mike McEwen. But it was Payne, the North Stars’ most dominant forward in the series, who put Minnesota ahead in the third, with Bobby Smith’s power play goal in the final minutes clinching the win for the home team.
Here’s Game 4, with Tim Ryan and Westfall behind the mike: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=am-PlI5D5jY
For the second year in a row the Islanders returned to the Coliseum following a road defeat with the chance to clinch the Cup in front of the home faithful. This time they required no overtime heroics … although few observers knew that both Trottier and Potvin were battling injuries that would have keep them out of a less important contest.
Taking Trottier’s place was Goring, who scored twice in the first period while Merrick added another goal for another three goal first period. Bourne scored in the second, making the score 4-1, and McEwen converted Trottier’s faceoff win for the final score late in the third period. That marker ended the suspense of finding out whether Trottier would continue his playoff consecutive point scoring streak (dating back the the previous season) as well as tallying at least a point in every game of the 1981 playoff run.
Here are the highlights of that Cup-clinching win: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLxuguwlk0U
Post game ceremonies: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dXVaqrbD_HI
The celebration after the clincher proved far less chaotic than the 1980 celebration. Potvin, nursing a knee injury, gingerly skated with the Cup a short distance; Bossy and he had to help Trottier lift it due to the center’s separated shoulder. This time other players spent more time skating around with the Cup, including Nystrom, who had not touched it during the previous year’s ceremony.
The only discussion was over the awarding of the Conn Smythe Trophy, which went to Butch Goring. Goring’s ten goals (five in the finals) and ten assists during the playoffs were impressive, to be sure, but his seven points in the final trailed Bossy and Merrick with eight apiece and tied him with Trottier, a point ahead of Potvin.
Bossy (a record 35 points, breaking Trottier’s 1980 record), Trottier (29 points again) and Potvin (25 points) had more prolific offensive playoffs. For Potvin, who never won the Conn Smythe, a case could be made that his all-around play deserved the recognition, while Bossy shared his disappointment openly when he accepted the award following the 1982 playoffs. It was one of the few times that one saw some uneasiness about personal recognition in a group of players noted for their commitment to team success.
Somehow the Islanders’ 1980-81 Stanley Cup run has not always gotten the attention paid to the other three years, in part because there were no critical moments such as the overtime wins in 1980, the comeback versus Pittsburgh in 1982, and the conquest of Edmonton in 1983. Yet this was the year that the Islanders showed they were more than a single-season fluke as they dominated in defense of the Cup. In the process they gained revenge for previous playoff upsets while dominating on special teams with some timely goaltending.
In more recent decades we’ve learned that simply repeating as champions is a daunting task: besides, if you want to win three or four in a row, you first have to repeat with number two.
Follow Brooks on Twitter at @BrooksDSimpson