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How the Islanders dynasty survived an attempted Penguins-based coup, 35 years ago

The juggernaut Islanders of the early 1980's almost weren't, thanks to an upstart Penguins team that almost dethroned the NHL's kings in 1982.

Sometimes a funny thing happens for would-be dynasties as the presumed perpetually-ruling king goes off the rails. In the case of a team like the early 1970s Bruins, that king spent too much of his time drinking himself into oblivion. For the early 1990s Penguins, the short-time sovereign made the mistake of underestimating the rabble—that is, the 1993 Islanders—who wished to topple him from his bejeweled seat. Other times, the king mobile just runs out of gas, like with the mid-1970s Flyers. 

The king can hit a bump in the road, fly headlong from his carriage, and return to ride/rule again—see the post-1986 Oilers—but what we tend not to talk about are those times when the king has to have a bare knuckles punch-up with a relative commoner so that his kingly stay can be extended. 

Thirty-five years ago, the hockey world watched in utter shock as a woefully bad Los Angeles Kings team, with their 24-41-15 record, took out Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers in the first round of the playoffs. This was the year Gretzky scored 92 goals and first went over the 200 point mark; in other words, ’81-’82 was to Gretzky as 1964 was to the Beatles. The Oilers were fast, their pace of play faster; they were Lamborghinis amidst Herbie the Love Bugs and assorted bumper car detritus. 

Ah, but if you ever were a team harboring hopes of an upset, you loved the first round format of the time: it was a best of five, and you need not be Gandalf the Great to know that it’s easier to win three games than four. 

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Over the course of a seven-game series, matters tend to right themselves. Barring a hot goalie stealing the series for your side, if you are the far weaker team you’re almost certainly going to lose. The Kings out-gunned the Oil 10-8 in the opener, which set an ominous tone for Gretzky and his merry men, and you probably know about the Miracle on Manchester contest, when the Kings, trailing 5-0 in the third of game three, came back to win 6-5 in OT. The Oil were booted out of the playoffs on home ice two games later. 

What hardly anyone talks about, though, is that the Islanders, in that same opening round of the same year, had a similar situation to contend with, thanks to the pre-Mario Lemieux Penguins. The Islanders had won two straight Cups. There had been some belief that their first was a fluke, but those beliefs were overturned with a stellar 1980-81 campaign, and now the Islanders were better yet with their 54-16-10 record. 

In fact, it’s not tough to argue that this Islanders squad numbers among the best half dozen teams in NHL history, and if we’re being a touch cheeky, we can even maintain that they’d beat the other teams in that heavenly grouping, as the Islanders could play any style you wished and beat you at it. 

Finesse and flow? Here’s your big L, baby. Chip, chase, grind? They’d leave you bloody and beaten. A mix of styles from one period to the next? No problem—they were hockey’s grand Cuisinart of a team. 

Mike Bossy had the best year of his career, finishing with 147 points, second behind Gretzky. Bryan Trottier had 129, John Tonelli, not a huge scorer, even had 93; Denis Potvin missed time but was unvanquishable in his own end and averaged more than a point a game, and goalie battlin’ Billy Smith won the Vezina and chopped out the legs of crease-invading forwards at a brisker than usual rate. 

Bossy was a plus-69, Trottier a plus-70, and in players like Clark Gillies, Bob Bourne, and the Sutter brothers, the Islanders had enough “glue guys” playing forward to animate and titillate an Elmer’s factory. For all of the offense, there were also classic stay-at-home defenseman in Ken Morrow and Dave Langevin, who totaled two goals between them, and were a combined plus-88. 

The Penguins were not so stacked. They finished five games under .500, were led in scoring by Rick Kehoe’s 85 points, with the previous year’s Norris trophy winner Randy Carlyle placing second with 75. Kehoe was a minus-27, Carlyle minus-16 (and there may be no flukier Norris winner in NHL history). 

You know the expression, “hey, we’re just happy to be here?” That might have been the Pens' thinking, when fronted with the Islanders. But sometimes “hey, we’re just happy to be here,” becomes “Are you serious? Everyone is laughing at us and expects us to get pasted? Screw that.” Call it a team-wide bee under the old CCM hockey helmet. 

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Granted, rage/kickback didn’t kick in for the Pens until the first two games were over. The Islanders won them 8-1 and 7-2, which is about as much as you can kick someone’s hindquarters in the NHL postseason. The series then shifted from the Island to Pittsburgh, and a 1-1 game went to OT. 

It’s interesting, isn’t it—you allow the next goal, and your season is over, but if you score the next goal, your long journey back out of the hole you are presently in is just beginning. 

For a lot of people who are not hockey players, facing such a situation in life brings with it a tendency to take your licking and start anew with something else. Like, who wants to deal with all of that work, when you’re probably just delaying the inevitable? But now you’re supposed to invest more pain and sweat in that dilatory process of extending your own suffering? That’s a bad time. 

Hockey players, though, tend not to be normal people in that regard, which is why we can learn so much from them. Not only did the Pens win Game 3 in overtime, they won Game 4 handily 5-2, to force the series back to New York. 

By now the Islanders must have been wondering how history would view them if they got bounced like this. Would there be big changes next year? Would they ever come close to winning a Cup again? Was their time coming to an end, and this was just the business of the closing punctuation? 

The Penguins led that deciding game 3-1 heading into the third period. Mike McEwen, a solid offensive defenseman, got the Isles within one, but the equalizer was proving elusive enough to be featured on the back of a milk carton. 

The Penguins would have known they were not going to win the Cup. This was their moment. Was it Cup-sized? No, of course not—but the victories in life that are sometimes the biggest are those outside the fold of what we’re told to put our greatest values upon. What you do for your elderly neighbor, perhaps, on a snowy day when their car needs digging out can outweigh, as you probably know, the promotion you got at work the afternoon before. 

So it goes, sometimes, in sports. And just as there is much to be applauded when a team redefines values on the fly, so too is there much to be admired when another team refuses to crumble. Even if some people might be embarrassed that something knocked you down that maybe shouldn’t have, the ground is a great leveler; when we’re on the floor, what we were before doesn’t matter, what expectations were does not matter. All that matters is what will come next: either more time on the floor—or, hell, below it—or some time back up in the air, standing straight again. Standing taller, too. 

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With less than two and a half minutes to go, Tonelli knotted it. The Islanders might not have had a bigger big game player, and they had a chartered plane’s worth. To back up this point, Tonelli then scored the winner in OT, providing the Isles with sweet, sweet deliverance from the floor. 

Everyone had expected the Oilers and Islanders to meet in the Cup final. But one team still thought that when you took a series of blows, you did everything you could not to fall. Whereas, the other team knew that when you took that same series of blows, the X-marks-the-spot challenge was on you to get stronger.