"Let faith oust fact; let fancy oust memory; I look deep down and do believe."
Those words, originally spoken by the mate Starbuck during the ill-fated voyage of Herman Melville's Pequod, may well have been on the lips of a man at the helm of another vessel that, until last week, appeared to be sinking—Bill Torrey of the New York Islanders. The faith—some say fancy—of the Islanders' general manager is that his team has the talent and the heart to win the Stanley Cup. The fact is that, had the NHL playoffs started last Saturday, the Islanders would not even have qualified. They were No. 18 in the 21-team league.
And the memory is a grim one: a semifinal loss to the underdog New York Rangers in last season's playoffs. It was the second year in a row that Torrey's young, ostensibly powerful Islanders had been upset before the finals, and almost everyone—the players included—expected some personnel changes in the off season. But Torrey stood pat, with disastrous results so far. After 26 games the Islanders were 9-13-4. Last season they lost only 15 of their 80 games and had the best record in hockey. But now they already have been defeated by such weak sisters as Detroit, St. Louis, Colorado and Vancouver—which combined for an 0-14-4 record against the 1978-79 Islanders—and, most humiliating of all, by an expansion team, the Edmonton Oilers. Not once, but twice.
"There's no question that our awful start is a carry-over from last year's playoff loss to the Rangers," admits Islander Forward Bob Bourne. "Subconsciously, you feel, 'Why beat our brains out before the playoffs? It doesn't get us anywhere anyway.' I hope we don't kid ourselves into thinking we can turn it around any time we want."
Last week, playing without All-Star Defenseman Denis Potvin, who will miss the next seven weeks following surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb, the Islanders finally began to turn things around. On Thursday night they ended a stretch in which they had lost eight of 11 games—and silenced, at least temporarily, their disgruntled home fans—by edging the Boston Bruins 4-3, and on Saturday night they put together their first 60-minute effort of the year and stunned the Maple Leafs 6-1 at Toronto. Then, on Sunday night, the Islanders met New York's other struggling team, the Rangers, at Madison Square Garden and lost a wild shootout 5-4.
In a way, the Rangers' problems can be traced to that same semifinal series with the Islanders. Flushed with that success, the youthful Rangers seem to have let their Darlings-of-Broadway image go to their heads. They have been spending so much time stepping out in the New York night spots that they have been dancing a bit on the ice, forgetting that it was hard work in the less fashionable corners that brought the team success. As one Ranger official, says, "A little partying's all right, but you've got to pick your spots. This pace is going to wear them out." The Rangers played 5-9-1 hockey in November, including a humiliating 10-5 loss to their floundering neighbors on Long Island. Said one unsympathetic Islander, "The Rangers weren't really struggling like us. They just weren't putting out."
"Yes, we're just starting to get our intensity now," says Ranger Goalie John Davidson, the star of last spring's playoffs, who is just now regaining his form after an August knee operation. "We lost some people in the draft that I'm not sure management wanted to lose, like Pierre Plante and Nick Fotiu. They were tough guys. There're a lot of new faces around here, and it's going to take a while for them to blend in."
The prime reason for a number of the new faces is Barry (Bubba) Beck, 22, the 6'3", 215-pound defenseman whom the Rangers acquired from Colorado last month in exchange for four players, including three regulars, and a wad of cash. The strongest player in the league, Beck fills the "enforcer" void left by Fotiu's departure. But in his first month as a Ranger, Beck has fallen somewhat shy of expectations; slowed by a pulled groin muscle, he hasn't carried the puck well and too often has wandered too far from his defensive position.
Until two weeks ago, the blame for the Rangers' shoddy play—and the boos of the Garden crowds—was directed at the goaltenders—Davidson, Wayne Thomas and Doug Soetart, who had combined for a sky-high 4.17 goals-against average. Somewhat desperate, the Ranger management—and no one's really sure whether it's General Manager-Coach Fred Shero, Assistant GM Mickey Keating, Assistant Coach Mike Nykoluk, PR Director John Halligan, Assistant to the President Rod Gilbert or Madison Square Garden President Sonny Werblin who runs this club—called up Steve Baker, 22, from the New Haven farm club two weeks ago. In his first five games the Boston-born-and-raised Baker lost only once and had a 2.40 goals-against average. Not surprisingly, New York's fickle fans instantly took to Baker, whom John Ferguson, Shero's predecessor as Ranger coach, discovered at Union College in 1977.
When Baker was temporarily stunned by a shot last Wednesday during a 3-3 tie against the Chicago Black Hawks, Davidson skated out to check on Baker's health and was greeted by a chorus of boos from the Madison Square Garden crowd. As Davidson leaned over the fallen Baker, the catcalls rang, "Don't touch him! Don't even speak to him! What you've got might be catching."
"They've been treating Baker like he's the mayor of New York," says worried Ranger Captain Dave Maloney. "Jeez, let the kid come along slowly."
According to its critics, New York's other team has also suffered from leaky goaltending, among other things. The Islanders, perennially among the leaders in fewest goals allowed, have been giving up 3.75 a game—about one more than they did a year ago. "I've always played on teams with tight defense," says Chico Resch, who shares the Islander goaltending load with Billy Smith. "I used to get maybe 22 shots a game, and two of them would be tough ones. Now it's 32 shots a game—and 12 of them are tough. I'm not used to this. I don't think my goals-against was this high in college. This year has been 10 times tougher in the quality of shots."
Why? "I'll give you three reasons," says one Islander. "Eddie Westfall, Bert Marshall, Gerry Hart. That's fiber."
The Islanders lost Hart to Quebec in the expansion draft, and Marshall and Westfall retired after last season. All three were defensive specialists, but their greatest contributions came in a less tangible way: leadership by example. On each shift they sacrificed personal goals for the good of the team. For two months of this season, precious few Islanders have shown a willingness to do that. Says Bourne, "One player told me before the season, 'The hell with it; I'm going for more goals.' Deep down, we don't have the enthusiasm."
A quick look at the Islanders' history is revealing. Founded in 1972, they were built around draft choices and defense. Significantly, their first true star was a defenseman—Potvin. In their third year, the Islanders used a disciplined, close-checking style to knock the haughty Rangers out of the 1975 playoffs, went on to eliminate Pittsburgh after trailing 3-0 in games and finally lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Philadelphia Flyers, in seven games in the semifinals. The next two years they were eliminated by the Cup-winning Montreal Canadiens, but the Islanders were tagged as the heirs apparent. However, in 1977, when the Mike Bossy-Bryan Trottier-Clark Gillies line was put together and became the highest-scoring unit in hockey, something changed.
"The Islanders had always been a team whose success was in their defense," says Resch. "Then people started saying we couldn't beat the Canadiens without more scoring, so we started to open up. We got away from what got us here."
What really haunts Torrey is that for two years running his highly paid, high-scoring Trio Grande has been completely throttled in the playoffs, adding fuel to the argument that a one-line team can be contained in a short series.
Hoping to spread the scoring wealth among all three forward lines, Coach Al Arbour broke up the Trio Grande and in recent weeks has tried countless new line formations. In the most recent experiment, he has put Swedish import Anders Kallur on a line with Bossy and Trottier, whose play has been lackluster at times, and moved Gillies to left wing with Billy Harris and 19-year-old Right Wing Duane Sutter, New York's No. 1 draft choice last summer. Torrey had originally returned Sutter to the Lethbridge (Alta.) Broncos of the Western Canada Junior League for seasoning, but when the Islanders were floundering two weeks ago he wisely recalled him for another look. "The kid should never have been sent down in the first place," snaps one Islander. Sutter has scored three goals in six games and, better still, added some life to Gillies' stale game.
Before the season, the 6'3", 220-pound Gillies, 24, resigned his captaincy, complaining that the pressure was such that he was getting severe headaches that were affecting his play. Torrey and Arbour conferred, then appointed Denis Potvin the new captain. This, in itself, may be partly responsible for the team's horrendous start; the cosmopolitan Potvin prefers a life-style that is far removed from the farm-boy image projected by most of his teammates; he has never, as one Islander says, been "one of the guys." "Some of the old resentment's come out again," says an Islander. "After not giving the puck up to the other defensemen, Denis tried a couple of 'Come on, guys, let's work together' talks between periods. They didn't go over too well."
Torrey, aware of the problem, keeps a stiff upper lip. "I don't mind that," he says. "A little controversy's the best thing in the world for a team. The only thing I could possibly indict Denis on is that after missing all of training camp with a shoulder injury, he came back and tried to do too much too soon."
Which is another way of saying he never passed the puck. The simple fact is this: although Potvin has scored 21 points in just 13 games, the Islanders' record is 2-9-2 when he has played and 7-4-2 when he has been injured.
Torrey does not consider the leadership void to be critical. He also is not yet willing to admit that his patiently constructed team doesn't have the makeup of a champion. Not publicly, anyway. At 3:30 p.m. last Friday, Torrey flatly rejected this notion expressed by one Islander: "What we need most of all is a goon," the player said. "If we had a guy like Dave Semenko of Edmonton around for protection, guys on our team like Wayne Merrick would be a lot more effective." However, two hours later, Torrey added some muscle and punch to the Islanders when he acquired tough Defenseman Gordon Lane from Washington. Lane has averaged 140 penalty minutes a season and never hesitates to use whatever means are necessary to keep opponents away from his goaltender.
"Everybody's hollering that we should get rid of this, that or the other," Torrey says. "Listen. We've had two bad months. Last year we had six good months, then lost four games, and all of a sudden we're bums. So what do I judge our assets by? The six months or the four games?
"Hockey isn't a game where you can say, 'Hey, this is the way we're going to play.' You have to be able to make adjustments. Montreal is either good enough or smart enough to go with another style of play when things aren't working, and that's what we've lacked so far. Al and I are going to have to assess who can and cannot make those mental adjustments. It's not whether this team has the physical capabilities to be a championship team, but the mental capabilities. Our players thought this season was going to be a cakewalk: four schlocky expansion teams coming in, a schedule in which we played Philly, Atlanta and the Rangers four times instead of eight. They forgot that these other teams had something to prove."
Now, spoiled by a great white whale called Success, New York's Islanders and Rangers do, too.