When the Boston Bruins set the NHL record of 14 consecutive victories back on Jan. 9, 1930, Herbert Hoover was feebly battling the Great Depression, new DeSotos sold for $845, and one could buy a New York Times for 2¢ and read a report of Babe Ruth's threatened holdout for an $85,000 salary. We're talking long ago. Understandably, as years and decades passed, the Bruin feat came to be considered untouchable. That is, until last Saturday night when, before 15,271 delirious fans at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, the rampaging New York Islanders won their 15th straight game by beating the Colorado Rockies 3-2 on a dramatic goal by Left Wing John Tonelli, who two nights earlier had scored the game-winner in Philadelphia to tie the record.
Against Colorado, with the score 2-2 and just 47 seconds to play, Tonelli took a pass from Bryan Trottier, planted his skates at the top of the left circle and blasted a shot toward the Colorado net. Dropping to the ice in an attempt to block the shot was Rockies Defenseman Bob Lorimer. In goal was Chico Resch. Ironically, the Islanders had traded both Lorimer and Resch to Colorado—the former in October, the latter last March—and now they were the final obstacles between their former teammates and the record book. Lorimer just missed Tonelli's shot, and his outstretched body partly obscured Resch's view of the puck. It sailed between his legs.
"None of us believe this streak will last forever, but it sure adds a lot of fun and tension each time we go out on the ice," said Tonelli after the game. Islander General Manager Bill Torrey was glowing, too. "Every year somebody's name is inscribed on the Stanley Cup," he said. "But it's been 52 long years since anybody's done this."
En route to the record, the Islanders beat 10 opponents in seven cities. When they finally lost 4-3 on Sunday to Pittsburgh, it was their first defeat in four weeks. And their wins were convincing—12 of them by three goals or more and six by at least five. In all, they scored nearly three times as many goals as the opposition (97-35) and utterly dominated third periods (36 goals to four). In only four games did the Islanders ever trail. In 11 of the victories they gave up no more than two goals, and in all but four they had more shots on goal. Sure, John, it's fun when your club is playing like that.
In a world not without its share of grinches, some NHL observers last week were pooh-poohing the Islanders' record even before they set it, because during the streak they had played only one game against a team (Buffalo) whose record ranks among the five best in the league. Ten of their victories were over clubs in the bottom half of the overall standings: Colorado, Washington (twice), Hartford, Detroit, Pittsburgh (four times) and Chicago. Still, in a low-scoring game like hockey, in which one bad bounce or a momentary lapse can turn triumph into tie, well.... Boston's record didn't endure for 52 years because of some schedule-maker. Besides, the Islanders did defeat Minnesota, the Rangers—who had beaten them in their previous two games—and Philadelphia twice. Said Captain Denis Potvin, "If we'd picked where we wanted to play the 14th game of this streak, no question Philadelphia's Spectrum would have been last on the list."
The grinches must face it—the Islanders played so powerfully during the past month that it almost went unnoticed that at week's end Montreal was unbeaten in its last 16 games, a surge that included 11 straight wins. In Game 2 of their streak, the Islanders forechecked the Rangers into such a frazzle that Goaltender Billy Smith faced only 22 shots in a 6-1 victory. In Game 3 the Islanders scored five goals in the first 4:08 to rout the Penguins 9-2. In Game 6, a 5-2 defeat of Washington, they were assessed 10 penalties but didn't yield a power-play goal. In Game 12, at Hartford, where they had never won, the Islanders pumped a season-high 51 shots on goal and, leading 4-1 going into the third period, displayed a fearsome killer instinct by scoring five more goals. Against the Flyers in Game 14, the Islanders overcame 3-1 and 4-2 deficits before winning 7-4. When the streak began, the Islanders trailed Philadelphia by two points in the Patrick Division standings. By last weekend they led the second-place Flyers by 19 points.
Although the Islanders had begun 1981-82 as everybody's favorite to win a third straight Stanley Cup, they had given little indication earlier in the season that they would embark upon any kind of victory binge. Skating, as Smith says, "lacksy-daisy" through the first half of the schedule, New York was only 25-13-6 when it began its run, a record far beneath its lofty standards. Coach Al Arbour had even benched Potvin, a six-time All-Star defenseman, on several occasions for shoddy play. Arbour also yanked Bob Nystrom, the hero of the 1980 Stanley Cup playoffs, and Butch Goring, the 1981 Cup star, from the lineup several nights. Following a 3-2 loss to the Rangers on Jan. 20, Arbour said, "We rely on a team effort, and right now not enough players are contributing." The next night the binge began.
Arbour, a renowned tinkerer, made two critical moves. First, he put the hard-skating Tonelli, who's having the best season of his six-year pro career with 28 goals and 36 assists, on his gunner line with Right Wing Mike Bossy and Center Trottier. While not exactly struggling, neither Trottier, one of the game's premier playmakers, nor Bossy, a magnificent goal-scorer, had been performing up to his enviable capabilities. In fact, when the streak began, Bossy was in so deep a rut he had scored only two goals in the previous six games. The Tonelli move clicked. "John's more push-and-shove than finesse," says Resch. "But Boss and Trotts bring the finesse out in him, and he's so intense, he gets them going."
During the 15 games, Trottier led the Islanders with 19 goals, including six game-winners. Against Philadelphia in Game 11, he got five. He also finished the streak with 11 assists and at least a point in every outing. In the same span, Bossy had 10 goals and, in a sort of role reversal, 23 assists, including one on each of Trottier's five scores against the Flyers. Bossy, who had an NHL-record nine hat tricks last season, got his first of the year in Game 8 of the streak. "I'm not used to going so long with so few goals," he says. "It's not that what I do is fantastic, but it's what I expect of myself." This attitude isn't good news for the rest of the NHL. Bossy, who by the end of the streak had moved into second behind Wayne Gretzky in the league scoring race with 44 goals and 63 assists, is the only player to get 50 or more goals in each of his first four NHL seasons. He usually lives up to his expectations.
Arbour's other major move was to place 19-year-old Brent Sutter on a line with his 21-year-old brother, Duane, a right wing, and veteran Left Wing Clark Gillies. Brent, 5'11" and 175 rock-solid pounds, is a promising center who was recalled from the Lethbridge, Alberta junior team on Jan. 7. Torrey, who thinks bringing up Brent might well have been the key to the whole streak, says, "When a 19-year-old shows up and starts bumping and grinding the way this kid has, it rubs off. It's hard for the older guys not to do the same." After watching the Islanders a few weeks ago, Flyer scout Joe Watson returned to Philadelphia and told Coach Pat Quinn, "This kid Brent Sutter has rejuvenated that whole team."
"Enthusiasm, hard work—Brent's added something to this team," says Trottier. One thing he has made possible is a line made up of three Islander first-round draft picks—Gillies in 1974, Duane in '79 and Brent in '80. During the 15 victories, Gillies had 10 goals and 13 assists, Duane seven and 15, Brent 15 and 12. Brent also got his first hat trick in Game 6, a 7-6 defeat of Washington. Duane assisted on all three of his brother's goals. Most important, Gillies came to life with his new linemates. He calls Duane "Dog" and Brent "Pup." Says Gillies, "They're fun, especially Dog. He's always yapping at the other team, getting us going. I think he's a little crazy." Asked if he had a name for the new line, Gillies said, "Sure. The Gillies Line."
Two lines alone, however, don't win 15 consecutive games. Throughout the run, the Islanders flaunted their nonpareil depth. Six players—Potvin, Tonelli, Trottier, Brent Sutter, Nystrom and Goring—scored at least one game-winning goal. Each of them also had two goals or more in at least one game, as did Bossy, Gillies, Bob Bourne, Duane Sutter, and Anders Kallur. Even Hector Marini, who dresses infrequently, had the first two-goal evening of his 42-game NHL career. Meanwhile, Smith allowed just 18 goals in winning nine games and lowered his goals-against average to 2.93, third best in the league. No. 2 net-minder Rollie Melanson went 6-0 and reduced his average to 3.33. Asked by a man with a microphone if he could single out the key to the Islander streak, Trottier said sure and handed the guy a team roster.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the skein was that it was in serious jeopardy only twice. Game 14, last week at Philadelphia, seemed lost when in the second period the Flyers struck for four goals in six minutes to open their 4-2 lead. "We wanted it so badly that sometimes our legs froze up," said Potvin later. Added Bossy, "It wasn't just the streak, but the idea that we were behind in a game we wanted." Late in the period, Bossy tipped home a shot by Potvin. Just 1:22 after that, Brent Sutter scored his second goal of the night on a 40-footer. Tie game. By then one could sense the 17,147 Flyer fanatics in the Spectrum knew what was coming. The only question was which Islander would deliver. At 7:08 into the third period, the answer came: Tonelli, on a stuff shot off a perfect 60-foot feed from Bossy, who had intercepted a clearing pass. Then, two nights later, with 47 seconds to play against Colorado, Tonelli did it again.
"It's one of the nice things that can happen in this game," said Tonelli, referring to the record. "And, by God, it happened because 22 Islanders were putting it all together for 15 games." Nobody had seen anything like it for 52 years.