But Al," the man with the tape recorder pleaded last Saturday night. The bespectacled coach of the New York Islanders ignored him, intent upon providing a grim analysis of his team's troubles: an inefficient power play, an uncoordinated first line, stupid penalties, breakdowns in the system, too many joy-riders, too much controversy. "But Al," the man persisted, "you're in first place, you still lead Philadelphia, you're 7-2-2 and you've got the best goals-against record in the NHL." Al Arbour nodded his head. "Big deal," he said. "We're still not playing the way we should."
And sure enough, faced with critical early-season tests against Montreal and Philadelphia last week, the five-year-old Islanders played too often like the expansion originals who once brought added meaning to the word hapless. As a consequence, they emerged from their scuffles against the big boys with a 4-1 loss to the Canadiens and a lucky 3-3 tie with the Flyers. The Islanders trailed Philadelphia 3-1 midway through the third period Saturday night, and they were playing so ineptly that the capacity home crowd of 14,865 at the Nassau Coliseum repeatedly serenaded them with chorus after chorus of boos—an unfamiliar sound to the ears of the young Islanders. J. P. Parise silenced some of the noisemakers when he took Denis Potvin's pass behind the Flyers' defense, broke in against Goaltender Bernie Parent and slipped a backhander into the net to make the score 3-2. Then Jude Drouin converted the remaining boo birds when he beat Parent through a screen for the tying goal with 3:41 to play.
Although the Islanders maintained their two-point lead over the Flyers in the Patrick Division, there was little joy on Long Island, nor had there been any all week.
The Islanders' troubles began as they flew into Montreal for Monday night's match against the Canadiens. Potvin, the 23-year-old defenseman who is a rarity among hockey players in that he speaks in polysyllables, enjoys art and the theater and does not limit his reading to centerfolds, had kept a diary of the recent Canada Cup tournament for The Canadian, a newspaper supplement that had hit the newsstands that weekend.
November 8, 1976
As always, Potvin freely spoke his piece. In the diary, entitled "The Candid Cup," Potvin particularly questioned the selection of Bobby Orr as the MVP in Canada's victories over the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. "Once, yes, he did deserve it once," wrote Potvin, referring to Orr's performance in an earlier game against the U.S., "but I don't think he was deserving of the award twice and certainly not three times. I think it's political, and I think it's unjust. The question I'd like answered is this: Is Bobby Orr only going to have to play to be known as the best defenseman—or is he going to have to prove it?"
It has always rankled Potvin, who won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman last season, that he has been compared to Orr. In fact, they are quite different both on and off the ice. The healthy Orr was swift and flashy, Potvin is plodding and methodical. Orr has always been shy and retiring, Potvin aggressive and ebullient. What Alan Eagle-son says and does for Bobby Orr, Denis Potvin says and does for Denis Potvin.
The Potvin Papers created the type of stir that Jimmy Carter prompted with his interview in Playboy. "We didn't like reading what Denis had to say one bit," said one Islander. "Nothing was said to him, but Denis knew how we all felt." Or as Defenseman Gerry Hart noted, "We've learned to shake our heads at some things that Denis says. If he gets too pompous, we knock him right down." One respected Montreal hockey columnist blistered Potvin in print, calling him, among other things, an egomaniac, petty and an insufferable crybaby.
Potvin was stung by this reaction. "Maybe my wording was wrong," he said. "Maybe I should have elaborated more, like saying there were six or seven players—Rogie Vachon or Serge Savard or Gilbert Perreault, to name three—who deserved the MVP after the Soviet and Czech games as much as I did, or more than Orr. Listen, other guys, I'm sure, agreed with what I wrote. I'm sorry, but you can't go on being pro-everything all your life. It's not human nature."
Predictably, the crowd in Montreal booed the announcement of Potvin's name as an Islanders starter. And while that same crowd almost automatically cheers noisily whenever a French-Canadian—playing for the Canadiens or the opposition—scores a goal in the Forum, Potvin received little applause when he made a neat move and beat Goaltender Ken Dryden to give the Islanders a 1-0 lead. Mario Tremblay tied the score for the Canadiens, and just when it appeared that both teams were finding their styles, the game virtually ended.
The Islanders were shorthanded, and the 5'9" Hart was battling 6'5" Peter Mahovlich for the puck. Their sticks came up and Mahovlich suddenly doubled over, his hands covering his face. Play stopped, Hart offered his consolation to Mahovlich, then the Montreal player skated to the bench and walked to the dressing room for repairs. Referee Wally Harris had watched the Hart-Mahovlich struggle from close range but did not signal a penalty. When Mahovlich left the ice, though, the referee gave Hart two minutes for slashing. Then, in a replay of the old Nippy Jones shoe polish scene from the 1957 World Series, Harris called Mahovlich from the dressing room, noticed there was a bit of blood on his nose and changed Hart's sentence to a five-minute major. "The old ketchup trick," someone joked.
Hart called Harris a coward, and Arbour stood on the dasher at the Islanders' bench and gave the referee the choke sign. Mahovlich immediately returned to the ice, but while Hart was in the penalty box, Montreal capitalized on its power play for two goals and in the end won the game 4-1.
Potvin was one of the few Islanders who produced a strong effort and was named the game's No. 3 star. However, a Montreal newspaperman reported the next day that one of the Canadiens' goals had deflected into the net off Denis Potvin's inflated ego.
Three nights later the Islanders handily beat St. Louis 5-2, helping ease some of Potvin's woes, but Arbour's problems were still pressing as the Islanders prepared to play the Flyers. For one thing, the Islanders' power play, the best in the NHL with 92 goals a year ago, had disappeared or disintegrated; in fact, their penalty killers had scored almost as many goals (six) as the power players (seven). For another, New York's top line of Center Bryan Trottier and Wings Clark Gillies and Billy Harris was making more blunders per shift than it used to make per month. Trottier, last season's Rookie of the Year with a record 95 points, seemed to be regaining his style after missing several games with a knee injury. Gillies, though, was trying to play like a smooth Guy Lafleur, not a 6'3", 220-pound body bender, and Harris was alternately hesitant and overanxious as he floated around the ice.
The Trottier line fared poorly against the Flyers. So did the Islanders' defense. Bob Kelly put the Flyers ahead 1-0 when he deflected Jim Watson's shot past Glenn (Chico) Resch after the Islander defensemen twice failed to clear the puck out of the zone. Hart helped to get that goal back when he sent Bob Nystrom in alone on Parent for the tying score, but another mix-up among the Islanders in front of Resch led to Bobby Clarke's freebie goal for a 2-1 Philadelphia lead. Then Resch gave up a soft goal to Mel Bridgman as the Flyers took a 3-1 lead.
Parent, meanwhile, was frustrating the Islanders with his agile leg movements and quick glove. Sidelined almost all of last season because of a neck injury, he now seems to have regained the stinginess that helped carry Philadelphia to Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975. But he had little chance to stop the two shots by Parise and Drouin, the latter on the long-lost power play, that finally produced the 3-3 tie for the Islanders, and silenced their critics, at least for now. Parent probably prevented a New York victory when he came out of his net in the closing moments and fielded a loose puck just as Eddie Westfall of the Islanders was ready to poke it past him.
No buts about it, Al.