Glen Sonmer, coach of the Minnesota North Stars and one of the most forthright men in the NHL, addressed the question the only way a reasonable man could. He sidestepped it. His young but faltering team had just lost its second straight 6-3 game to the New York Islanders and now was in the unenviable position of needing four victories in five games to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in its 14-year history. For the defending champion Islanders, the two wins were their sixth and seventh in a row in the playoffs, and they had won all but one by three goals or more. In 15 postseason games in 1981, New York was 13-2 and had outscored its opponents by an overwhelming 83-38 margin. "Awesome?" said Sonmer, shifting his eyes from his questioner. "I don't even use the word. That's for you guys. The Islanders are a good team." His players were star-struck enough without reading that their coach, too, was awed.
But there was no room for such subdued statements after Sunday night's game when the Islanders overcame a 3-1 deficit and eight Minnesota power plays to carve out a 7-5 win in the North Stars' building and take a 3-0 lead in the series. "It was by far our best effort, and it wasn't good enough," said Sonmer. "Even when we got ahead, they didn't deviate from their game, which is to work like hell. They don't get flustered. It's one of their marks of excellence."
How good are the Islanders? It's an interesting question. We clearly are in the midst of an Islander reign. Some observers would compare New York with the Montreal teams that won four consecutive Cups in the late 1970s. But while those Canadiens relied on defense—they won the Vezina Trophy for least goals allowed all four of those years—the Islanders depend more on their ability to put the puck into the net. They have been averaging 5.6 goals in the postseason, a time of year once typified by blocked shots, stalwart goaltending and low scoring.
Actually, the Islanders' style of play is more reminiscent of the Big Bad Boston Bruins of the early '70s than of the more recent Montreal clubs. New York plays the opposition even when the teams are at equal strength but beats opponents with power-play and shorthanded goals. In Denis Potvin, the Islanders have the best point man in the game, as the Bruins did with Bobby Orr. In Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier, the Islanders have the scoring punch of Phil Esposito—and then some. In Butch Goring, Anders Kallur, Bob Bourne, Billy Carroll and Trottier—any two of whom, along with several combinations of defensemen kill penalties at a given time—they have a shorthanded unit that has set a league record by scoring nine goals in the playoffs. Says Potvin, who in Game 3 broke Orr's record of 24 points in postseason play by a defenseman, "Specialty teams win games for you these days. Five-on-five, there's not much difference between top clubs."
May 24, 1981
It was certainly the specialty teams that won the first two games of the finals for the Islanders. Or lost them for Minnesota. The North Stars, an unflappable road team that had won six of nine away games through the first three rounds of the playoffs, had enjoyed their role as underdogs. In upsetting Boston, Buffalo and Calgary, their youngsters—seven rookies, eight players 21 or under—had played as if they had nothing to lose. The Islanders had been idle for a week while Minnesota finished off the Flames in six games, and there was some question whether New York could pick up where it had left off against the Rangers. It didn't take long to find out.
With his team leading 1-0 midway through the opening period of Game 1, Bourne got hit with a five-minute spearing penalty. Those five minutes decided the night's outcome. First, the relentless forechecking of the Islander penalty killers turned back North Star rushes time and again. Frustrated, Minnesota's 21-year-old spark plug, Dino Ciccarelli, cross-checked Trottier, who jabbed back with his stick. The next time Ciccarelli got the puck, instead of throwing it into the New York zone, he turned and fired it at Trottier. Hit him, too, about waist high. Asked when he last saw one of his players shoot the puck at an opponent during a power play, Minnesota General Manager Lou (From the Soo) Nanne said, "Last series. Ciccarelli did it against Calgary. Hit the guy that time, too."
Only this time he hit the wrong guy. Moments later Trottier took a pass from Carroll and scored a shorthanded goal to put the Islanders ahead 2-0. Forty-seven seconds after that Trottier passed to Kallur for yet another shorthander. When the five minutes had elapsed, the North Stars looked more like a team with nothing to gain than nothing to lose.
Asked if his team had had sufficient time to prepare for the Islanders' special teams, Sonmer nodded and spoke a line most often used by sex education teachers. "Looking at it on tape and talking about it are not the same as experiencing it," he said.
During a round of golf the next day, Nanne said jokingly, "I asked the officials if we could have two face-offs in the Islanders' zone after a penalty instead of making them play a man down." On a more serious note, he used a tee to diagram an adjustment in the North Stars' power play that would enable them to move the puck out of their zone. Instead of having Center Bobby Smith circle behind the net to start the play, Smith would circle up near the blue line. "If their forecheckers pressure our defensemen the way they did last night," said Nanne, "one pass and we've got a three-on-two."
The plan looked better on the links than it worked on the ice. In Game 2, New York's penalty killers, recognizing the change, dropped off Minnesota's defensemen and waited for them at their own blue line. This forced Minnesota to throw the puck in and chase it, a tactic more suited to the tough Flyers or Bruins than the freewheeling North Stars. In eight power-play chances, Minnesota scored only once, Ciccarelli, who at the week's end had 14 playoff goals, a rookie record, knocking in a rebound at 3:38 of the first period. The goal put the North Stars up 1-0.
They held the lead for 55 seconds. Enter Bossy and the New York power play, which, statistically anyway, is the best in the history of the league. During the regular season the Islanders scored a record 98 power-play goals. Through the first 16 games of the playoffs they had a record 29 goals on 73 power plays. That's a 39.7% conversion ratio in a category in which 30% is considered superb.
"How do they do it?" said Sonmer after Game 2. "They've got five players who can handle the puck, and all of them can shoot it. Our plan was to make someone other than Bossy score. Who's most apt to beat you on their power play? Bossy. We knew that. That's what's so disappointing."
In the Islander power play, Bossy, who normally plays right wing, sets up on the left, Trottier operates from behind the net and either Bourne or Clark Gillies is on the right side. Potvin plays the left point, Mike McEwen the right. In Game 1 the North Stars had stopped all three New York power plays by collapsing toward Potvin and Bossy and forcing McEwen and Bourne, who don't shoot as well, to make the plays. But in Game 2 the Minnesota penalty killers failed to execute the strategy. The Islanders, down 1-0 and a man up, tied the score when McEwen spotted Bossy cutting into the center and hit him with a diagonal pass. The North Stars were a step late reacting, which is more than enough time for Bossy. He took the pass and snapped it into the upper right-hand corner of the goal, beating 19-year-old Don Beaupre, who had replaced Gilles Meloche, the losing goaltender in Game 1, in the Minnesota net. It was Bossy's ninth power-play goal of the playoffs, another record.
The line of Wayne Merrick, Bob Nystrom and John Tonelli, supposedly a checking unit but one of the best two-way aggregations in the game, got the Islanders two more goals, and they led 3-1 after the first period. Minnesota tied the score, 3-3, in the opening seconds of the third period, but then the New York power play struck again. Potvin and Goring worked a perfect two-on-one inside the blue line that freed Potvin at the top of the slot. With Bossy attracting more than his share of attention in front, Potvin had time to fire a wrist shot through the screen for what proved to be the winning goal. The Islanders had just two power plays all night, and they scored on both.
Then in Game 3 New York showed a little of everything—penalty killing, power plays and, finally, utter superiority. After one period, the North Stars led 3-1. They were playing well, skating, fore-checking, but soon they discovered they were simply overmatched. In the next period the Islanders scored three unanswered goals and killed three penalties. In the third, after Minnesota had pulled even at 4-4, New York scored three more times en route to a devastating 7-5 win. Goring had a hat trick and Bossy ended up with two goals and two assists, which gave him a record 33 playoff points. Afterward a buoyant Goring said, "Nobody has given us any respect all year. Maybe if we win the finals in four straight, we'll start getting some."
But Trottier took a different tack. "I don't think we should demand respect," he said. "If people want to give it to us now, fine. We don't care about being compared with the Montreal Canadiens. At least I don't. We're just happy being the Islanders of the '80s." That would seem to be enough.