The New York Islanders finished the 1980-81 season as champions of the Patrick Division and the Clarence Campbell Conference, edging out the St. Louis Blues for the latter trophy by a mere three points. Yet division and conference standings went out the window as the playoffs began, as the sixteen teams that qualified were ranked by point totals. The Islanders’ first round opponent, with 71 points? The 16th-seeded Toronto Maple Leafs.
Today’s Islanders fans have a very specific reason to detest the Maple Leafs, although one might note that the behavior of Leafs fans and some members of the Toronto media also justify contempt and ridicule. Islander fans of longer standing may recall the dramatic 2002 playoff series in which the memory of Shawn Bates’s penalty shot goal struggles to overshadow Darcy Tucker’s hit on Michael Peca and the oft-forgotten outcome of that series (Leafs in seven).
But for Islanders fans who grew up with the team in the 1970s, the memory of the 1978 playoffs still burned. Back then the Leafs were a respectable team, led by forwards Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, and Tiger Williams, with Borje Salming and Ian Turnbull on the blue line in front of goaltender Mike Palmateer. The two teams met in a brutal quarterfinal series: the seventh game at Nassau Coliseum went into overtime, when McDonald popped a puck over Chico Resch to claim the series for the Leafs.
Leafs coach Roger Neilson had set out a game plan that featured hitting, hitting, and more hitting. Mike Bossy went down with a neck injury in game 6, while Bryan Trottier suffered a broken jaw after colliding with Billy Harris in the same game. Islander memories were long and bitter at the two teams prepared to meet in 1981.
Neither team was quite the same squad that had battled in 1978. Gone from Toronto were Neilson, Williams, and McDonald, although Wilf Paiement and Rick Vaive provided more firepower. “I’m telling my guys to think defensively when they play the Leafs,” Al Arbour told the New York Times on the eve of the series. Given the Leafs’ porous defense, other matters would take care of themselves.
The Islanders throttled Toronto in the opener, winning 9-2. Trottier scored twice and added three assists, twice setting up Bossy, who had a four-point game, while Bob Bourne picked up two goals, including a shorthanded tally. The Isles drove starting Toronto netminder Jiri Crha. Arbour decided to give Billy Smith a rest midway through the third period, and Rollie Melanson finished up, allowing a goal.
Game 2 was much the same, a 5-1 Islanders win, featuring a Trottier hat trick and another four points for Bossy. Bruce Boudreau was credited with Toronto’s lone goal (although Mike McEwen actually was responsible for the tally) while Barry Melrose visited the penalty box twice, once after exchanging high sticks with Clark Gillies. The Trottier-Bossy show impressed Toronto coach Mike Nykoluk: ”They know what they’re doing all the time. The trouble is that my guys aren’t sure what it is yet.”
Then it was up to Toronto, where the Islanders closed out the series in decisive fashion with a 6-1 win. Denis Potvin set up three goals, including scores by Trottier and Bossy, who each had two points.
(You can just watch the Isles’ goals, including one by Hector Marini, here:)
Melrose tried to inspire the fledgling Leafs by taking on Garry Howatt in the second period, with the expected result.
It was a satisfying series for the Islanders. Trottier and Bossy led the team in scoring with ten points, while the team outscored Toronto 20-4. Part of what drove them was lingering memories of the past. As Denis Potvin explained to the Times, ”All during last year’s playoffs, we kept hearing the word ‘choke.’ We dispelled that when we didn’t choke and won the Cup. Now, the word is ‘fluke.’ Where did that come from? How did that start? Well, we’re going to disprove that the only way we know how, by winning the Cup again.” Trottier seconded that notion: ”It may be wishful thinking,” he told the Times, ”but what they don’t realize is that the more we hear such things as ‘fluke’ and ‘choke,’ the more resolved we become to win it all again.”
Next up: the Edmonton Oilers.
You can reach Brooks on Twitter at @BrooksDSimpson.