Any best-of-seven series can be expected to have its feeling-out period, a game or two in which the foes probe each other for soft spots that might later be exploited. But when you are three games into a Stanley Cup final and the highlight is a holding penalty whistled by Referee Andy van Hellemond in overtime of Game 1, there is reason to suspect that what you've seen is what you're going to keep getting, that the pairing—in this case the New York Islanders and the Philadelphia Flyers—is an unfortunate one in which the two parties, as in a bad marriage, bring out the very worst in each other. Captain Denis Potvin was dead right when, after his Islanders' 6-2 win last Saturday night, which put them ahead two games to one, he said, "There's been no unbelievable play in the series yet. What you have here are just two hard-nosed hockey teams that are going at it, trying to put the puck in the net any way they can."
The problem could well be that the Islanders and Flyers are too much alike. Both teams have offenses that depend on forechecking and defenses that make the area in front of the net a minefield for opposing forwards. The Islanders have a sniper in Mike Bossy and a speedster in Bob Bourne; the Flyers counter with a sniper in Reggie Leach and a speedster in Ken (Rat) Linseman. The Islanders have the ubiquitous Butch Goring; the Flyers have the ubiquitous Bobby Clarke. This balancing act goes awry only on defense, where Philadelphia lacks any facsimile of Potvin. Both teams pride themselves on digging in the corners and tying up their counterparts, and as a result there was approximately one game-delaying face-off every 50 seconds in the first three games. Said one grizzled observer after Saturday night's game, "The bar mitzvah back at the hotel was more exciting than this."
The Islander-Flyer series was expected to be very rough, even a war, but Tuesday night's opener at the Spectrum unfolded as the NHL's answer to Jimmy Young vs. Jimmy Young, a counter-punching affair in which neither side committed itself offensively. "Part of our strategy is to establish our forechecking and dominate the game," said Flyer Defenseman Behn Wilson. "But we didn't do that. We were so worried about making a mistake that we were tentative. We've got to realize that hockey's a game of mistakes."
Hockey's also a game of breaks, and in the third period, with the score tied 2-2, the breaks came freakishly. First, Flyer Rick MacLeish scored a fluke goal—Philadelphia's first goal had been freakish, too, having been scored inadvertently by Potvin, of all people—off the back of Goalie Billy Smith's leg for a 3-2 lead. Then, with slightly less than four minutes left and the Islanders on the power play, the Flyers' Bill Barber broke his stick.
"If I'd been on the other side of the ice, I'd have come right off," Barber said, "but as it was, I would've had to skate all the way across the rink. So I stayed out there. Bossy threw the pass across to [Stefan] Persson, and if I'd had a stick, I know I could've tipped it. But...." Persson fired the tying goal past Pete Peeters, sending the game into overtime and setting the stage for van Hellemond's show of integrity.
Two minutes into OT, Islander John Tonelli was carrying the puck past Defenseman Jimmy Watson and seemed headed for a point-blank shot against a very lonesome Peeters when Watson hauled him down by the throat, a flagrant infraction. Van Hellemond rightly made the holding call as the Spectrum crowd howled in protest. All too often in similar situations the referee has looked the other way, fearful of assessing a penalty that might decide the game in sudden death.
"It was a great call," said NHL Referee-in-Chief Scotty Morrison.
"It wasn't necessarily a bad call," said Watson. "But usually...in overtime...."
"No comment," fumed Flyer Coach Pat Quinn.
Potvin scored the game-winner with one second left in Watson's penalty, the first overtime power-play goal in the 46 years that the NHL has kept records for the Stanley Cup finals. Suddenly, the home-ice advantage shifted to the Islanders, who to that point had an 8-1 road record during the playoffs.
Quinn used the next day to study films of Game 1 and bemoan the officiating. When he wasn't snarling things like, "If you put a bunch of Flyer sweaters out there on coat hangers, they'd draw penalties," Quinn noticed that the Islander defensemen had sagged back as the Flyers came up-ice in Game 1. One way for the Flyers to attack such a defense, he figured, would be for the forwards to carry the puck across the blue line instead of dumping it in and chasing it—or not chasing it, as had been the case Tuesday.
Goring got the Islanders off to a 1-0 lead in the early minutes of Game 2. Then, moments later, he beat Peeters on a slap shot, but the puck hit the post head-on and bounced harmlessly away. For some reason, this seemed to totally deflate the Islanders. The Flyers scored eight of the next nine goals, waltzing freely in front of the net, skating out from behind the cage while the dazed Islanders looked on, shoveling pucks at will under Smith. Paul Holmgren, the big Flyer winger once known strictly for his fists, became the first American-born player to score a hat trick in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the total distance of his three scoring shots having been perhaps the length of his stick. But such was the nature of the Islanders' defense—or lack of it. Final score: Philadelphia 8, New York 3.
As the series moved to the Nassau Coliseum, it was hoped that both teams would finally strut their best stuff in Game 3. Quinn, as is his practice, benched Peeters, a rookie, on the road and started veteran Phil Myre in goal, but his strategy, such as it was, quickly backfired. In the first 2½ minutes the Islanders got a shorthanded goal when Lorne Henning slapped a 40-foot shot through Myre's legs, and before the first period was over they had added three more scores on power plays, one each by Potvin, Bryan Trottier and Bossy. Forced to open up, the Flyers surrendered two more power-play goals in the second period as the Islanders took a 6-0 lead and then coasted to their 6-2 win. On the night, the Islander power play was a remarkable five-for-five. For the three games New York had scored 10 power-play goals, one shorthanded goal and only two goals with the teams at even strength.
"The power play has been the difference, there's no question about it," said Trottier, who centers the unit with Bossy and either Bourne or Clark Gillies on the wings, and Potvin and Persson on the point. "In other years we haven't scored on the power play in the playoffs. Thank goodness we are now."
The Flyers traditionally have been successful penalty killers, one reason why they have been able to play so aggressively while at even strength. Against Minnesota in the semifinals they killed 26 of 27 North Star power plays during one stretch, permitting no North Star to catch a whiff of the slot. The Flyers' philosophy on such occasions is to get away with as much as they possibly can in defending their goal. Says Wilson, who was called for eight penalties during the three Islander games, "If you didn't do anything that was in some degree illegal, you'd get killed out there. Penalties are subjective calls. If you can get away with something, then you're helping your club. The guys are pressing the limit all the time, trying to find out what each referee's limit is. But the power play—we've got to watch it. The Islanders have got some guys who work it really well. At some point I guess you have to back off from that limit."
The key to the Islander power play is that there is no single key; in the three games against Philly every member of the unit, except Bourne, scored at least once. Both Persson and Potvin move in well from the point and get their shots off quickly; Potvin scored two goals in Game 1 and two more in Game 3, and three of the four were off the power play. Bossy and Trottier are brilliant stickhandlers who can beat an overaggressive defender one-on-one. "On each power play you're starting over," says Trottier, "but we've got confidence in ourselves now. We think we can score."
Asked if he thought the Flyers would back off some after having been stung by New York's 10 power-play goals in 18 attempts—that's a 56% success rate (30% is considered excellent)—the pacifists Bossy smiled. "I hope not," he said. "It means less power plays."
For his part, Quinn turns apoplectic at the mere mention of penalties. "You're getting into a situation that's very touchy with me," he says. "Look, we'll be all right. We've killed penalties all year and we'll get that back together." They'll have to do it quickly. Holmgren injured his knee Saturday night and Watson reinjured his shoulder, and both might be finished until next season.
In the meantime, the Islanders could care less if this series goes down as a dud or a classic. Says Trottier, "We can play physical if we have to; we can skate if we have to; we can grind, stop and go along the boards if we have to. We can do whatever it takes to beat them on the scoreboard."