The 1981 Stanley Cup semifinals featured the rematch that some welcomed and some dreaded, as the Islanders confronted the past as well as the present in battling the Oh-La-La Sassoon cross-river rival New York Rangers.
It had been an interesting season for the Blueshirts. Fred Shero stepped down as coach in favor of Craig Patrick, who then saw Phil Esposito decide to hang up his skates after struggling during the first half of the season and Walt Tkaczuk retire in the wake on an eye injury. The team had three players serve as captain, with defenseman Barry Beck finally assuming the role. Under Patrick and Beck the team eventually recovered from its slow start, but still ended the regular season 30-36-14, good for fourth in the Patrick Division.
The playoffs, however, were a different story. The thirteenth-seeded Rangers toppled the fourth-seed Los Angeles Kings in four games, then disposed of the second-seeded St. Louis Blues in six. This meant that the top-seeded Islanders had faced in consecutive rounds the two teams that had taken out the second through fourth seeds (Edmonton had downed third-seeded Montreal in the preliminary round 3-1): the Isles, meanwhile, had faced the sixteen, fourteenth, and now thirteenth seeds.
Yet there were ghosts of playoffs past to be faced down. If the Islanders had been stunned in 1978 by the Maple Leafs, losing to the Rangers in the 1979 semifinals was deeply painful and scarring, seeming to solidify the team’s reputation as chokers. Even a Stanley Cup championship only partially eroded that stigma: in 1981 the Islanders were motivated as much by a fear of losing as by a desire to win. Facing the Rangers meant facing their fears and doing away with them.
The Rangers were far from an untalented squad of scrappy skaters, despite their record. Anders Hedberg, Eddie Johnstone, and Ron Greschner led the team offensively, while Ron Duguay came back from injury to resume his place as the darling of many female Ranger fans, a latter-day Rod Gilbert. Beck’s job was to patrol the blueline as the Rangers’ answer to Denis Potvin. Then there were the Maloney brothers, Dave and Don, to contend with. The team’s biggest question marks were in net, where five goalies had appeared during the regular season, with Steve Baker emerging as the first choice come playoff time.
The highly-anticipated third battle of New York, however, was hardly that, at least when it was all done.
The Islanders got off to a slow and shaky start in Game One: players admitted that 1979 was on their minds as the Rangers took a 2-1 lead and looked to be loose and confident. Then the Islanders remembered that it was now 1981, and that they were the best team in hockey. A fluke goal off John Tonelli’s skate gave the Isles the lead in the second period, and Tonelli and Billy Carroll scored in the third to give the Islanders the series lead with a 5-2 victory. This is how local media covered it:
The Rangers stormed back in Game Two, taking a 3-1 lead in the first period. Once more the Islanders went to work and unleashed an offensive onslaught, scoring on the power play, at even strength, and shorthanded in both the second and third periods to defeat the Rangers easily, 7-3.
The teams faced off in Madison Square Garden for their first playoff contest since the Rangers closed out the Islanders in 1979—the Isles’ last series loss. This time the Islanders did not fool around, tallying twice on the power play in the first period, adding two more goals in the second, and then trading goals in the third in a dominant 5-1 win. For the Game Three Islanders broadcast, featuring Ken “Jiggs” McDonald and Eddie Westfall (this was Jiggs’s first year behind the Islanders’ mike), here you go:
In Game Four, the Islanders broke out the brooms in Madison Square Garden. Three goals in the first period, including two power play scores by Mike Bossy, gave the Isles a lead they would not relinquish. Goring’s shorthanded breakaway made it 4-0 in the second period before the Rangers finally potted a pair. Whatever hopes the Blueshirts had of a comeback, however, were snuffed out when Duane Sutter, replicating his game six heroics against Edmonton, came out from behind the net and stuffed the puck behind Baker to cap a 5-2 victory and the series sweep.
And, for those of you who just want to watch an Islanders scoring parade, there’s this nice video summary (go to the 2:30 mark):
What were the keys to the Isles’ series dominance? First, the Islanders were superb on special teams, proving to be as lethal a man short as a man up. If Denis Potvin left his mark in the Edmonton series, it was Mike McEwen who was the surprise star against his former teammates with five points, two more than Potvin. The Isles’ attack was balanced: although Bossy led the way with six points (5G 1A), Tonelli and Wayne Merrick also had five, with Butch Goring, Bob Nystrom, and Bryan Trottier putting up four points apiece. Only Hedberg and the little-remembered Peter Wallin scored more than two points for the Rangers. Billy Smith was solid in net, while his opposite number Baker struggled with a .805 save percentage. Finally, after falling behind in Games One and Two, the Islanders confronted their memories of 1979: they were much more confident team in the final two games of the series in Manhattan. Of all the battles of New York, this proved to be the most one-sided in favor of the Islanders.
It was now onto the Stanley Cup Final for the second year in the row. The opposition? The ninth-seeded Minnesota North Stars, who bested seventh-seeded Calgary in six games. The 1-16 seeding tree, which was supposed to give better teams an advantage against weaker teams, served in practice to clear out the Islanders’ seemingly more threatening opponents in upset after upset. Through three rounds, the Islanders’ most daunting opponent had been their memories of past playoff failures. With the shadows of 1979 and 1979 addressed, the Islanders could face Minnesota with one thing on their mind: repeating.
Follow Brooks on Twitter at @BrooksDSimpson