New York Islander Goalie Billy Smith, his red face beaming as he drank beer on the rocks last Sunday night while his teammates sipped champagne from the Stanley Cup, spoke for everyone: the fans in Vancouver's Pacific Coliseum who finally had been forced to throw in their white towels, his teammates, even the gritty Canucks, who had lost in four straight games. "We're the best," Smith said. "We made one mistake in two nights on the road—one mistake—and you can't say enough about a hockey team like that."
Nobody seemed able to say enough. The Islanders had been that dominant in the series. Indeed, they have been that dominant for the past three years. Harry Neale, who coached Vancouver until the final five games of the regular season and is slated to be general manager next year, called the current New York club "an almost perfect team," which is about as neatly as one can put it. With their culminating 3-1 win on Sunday, their ninth victory in a row in postseason play this spring, came the Islanders' third consecutive Cup. Two second-period power-play goals by Mike Bossy broke open a 1-1 game, and the rest of the way the Islanders and Smith shut down the Canucks. The goals gave Bossy, who was named the MVP of the playoffs, seven for the final series, tying a record the great Jean Beliveau set in 1956 with the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens went on to win five straight Stanley Cups, a goal that now seems in reach of the Islanders. Said New York Coach Al Arbour, "The first year they said it was a fluke, the next we proved it wasn't, and this year we proved that we are a great team."
Only two other teams have won three or more consecutive Stanley Cups—the Toronto Maple Leafs (1947-49, 1962-64) and the Canadiens (1976-79 as well as 1956-60). Like the most recent Montreal dynasty, which New York General Manager Bill Torrey used as a model for his club, the Islanders can adjust to any style of hockey. Before facing Vancouver, they eliminated Pittsburgh, a dump-and-grind team, and then the Rangers and the Nordiques, who attempt to skate and pass you dizzy.
All hockey teams are the sum of several elements—speed, defense, goaltending, special teams, faceoffs, leadership, coaching, etc.—and the great ones are the best at the most. In Bob Nystrom, Duane Sutter, John Tonelli and Clark Gillies, the Islanders have some of the strongest mucking forwards in the NHL. Bryan Trottier is the best all-around center, a player who can dominate at either end of the ice. He's a master at controlling faceoffs, and Arbour has Trottier take every draw in the Islanders' defensive zone. If Trottier has a weakness, it's his shot, which is only average, but with a sniper like Bossy on his line, Trottier seldom needs to shoot from outside.
In Ken Morrow, who now has played for all the Islander Cup champions and an Olympic gold medal winner, New York has one of the best defensive defensemen in hockey (three goals in 123 games). Denis Potvin is the best power-play point man since Bobby Orr. Smith, of course, is the premier playoff goalie, and Butch Goring and Billy Carroll are two of the top penalty killers. While the Islanders aren't exceptionally fast, Bob Bourne can move, and, like Gillies, Duane and Brent Sutter, Nystrom, Gordie Lane and Dave Langevin, he can fight. New York's power play is the best, leadership abounds in the dressing room, and there are almost no personality conflicts—thanks largely to Arbour.
All in all, it would have been almost inconceivable that the Islanders wouldn't win the Stanley Cup. Not only do they have no exploitable weaknesses, but in almost every case their role players are the best in the NHL as well. And just to make sure his charges don't get complacent, Torrey has a fresh face or two on the team each year. This season rookie Brent Sutter played that role. Says Torrey, "His enthusiasm is contagious."
In the Canucks, the Islanders saw their former selves. "Our team reminds me of the Islanders a few years ago," said Vancouver Defenseman Harold Snepsts. Added Winger Dave (Tiger) Williams, "All you hear about is our clutching and grabbing, but Mr. Arbour invented that."
Arbour, known as "Radar" in his playing days because he was the first NHL player to wear glasses during games, scored only 12 goals in his 626-game career. Yet he was on four Stanley Cup champions—Detroit in 1954, Chicago in 1961 and Toronto in 1962 and '64. A stay-at-home defenseman, Arbour may not have invented clutching and grabbing, but he was towed around his own zone so often by enemy forwards that it seemed the league was furnishing him with Seeing Eye dogs. Which is exactly how Vancouver tried to throw the Islanders off their game. Tugging surreptitiously on jerseys, discreetly grabbing sticks, the Canucks sought to frustrate New York into retaliation. In the end, though, they frustrated only themselves.
Not that Vancouver really expected to win the series. Having finished a whopping 41 points behind the Islanders in the regular-season standings, the Canucks were delighted just to reach the finals. And, let's face it, a Cinderella team that comes to the ball dressed as a pumpkin isn't asking for miracles.
Superb teams like the Islanders find ways to win on nights they're not playing well. That's what happened in the first two games of the finals, as New York, which allowed the second-fewest goals (3.1 per game) in the league during the regular season, gave up nine and still came away with two victories. The performance of the special teams was the difference. In Game 2, the Islanders scored three power-play goals—just as they had done in winning the opener 6-5, thanks to Bossy's sudden-death goal—plus a short-hander by Carroll en route to a 6-4 victory.
With the score tied 4-4 at 4:27 of the third period, two old adversaries, Williams and Smith, squared off in what proved to be the pivotal episode of the game. The Canucks were on a power play, and Williams had camped in front of Smith as a screen. Smith immediately whacked him on the ankles. Williams slashed back and then pounced on him. Referee Ron Wicks sent Williams to the penalty box for four minutes, but Smith got only two minutes. Trottier scored the winning goal on the resulting power play. "That's what cost them the game," said Smith afterward. "Williams was stupid. He was backing in on me all night, and Wicks told me he was watching it. I told him, 'Fine, keep watching.' And he did. I thought he called a super game."
The Canucks and the Islanders flew to Vancouver for Game 3 on Thursday night. The Canucks were greeted at the airport by an adoring crowd, which one policeman estimated as being "more than 5,000 and less than a million." They were pawed and backslapped to exhaustion, leading a local paper to run the headline CLUTCH-AND-GRAB FANS HAIL CANUCKS, in wry response to the media's endless references to the team's style of play. The last hometown club to win the Stanley Cup was the Vancouver Millionaires in 1915, so Cup fever was high. Black-and-gold bumper stickers reading KING RICHARD, in recognition of Richard Brodeur's stellar goaltending earlier in the playoffs, abounded, and the white towels that had become the Canucks' symbol during their semifinal defeat of the Black Hawks sold like crazy. The T-shirt vendor who had started that craze, Butts Giraud, is a former world belly-flop champion. People stood in line for as many as 40 hours to purchase tickets to Game 3, and the inevitable alcoholic concoctions that are born of such frenzy began cropping up in bars, the most offensive of which was the Canuck Cafe, espresso doused with everything yellow and black: mocha liqueur, banana liqueur, Galliano, Pernod.
As if the fire needed any more fuel, on Thursday The Vancouver Sun ran a banner headline that read: "THAT SUTTER'S A COMPLETE JERK." The quote, attributed to Williams, referred to Duane. Several other Canucks complained of the Islanders' lack of "class," and they cited Duane's mocking of Brodeur with his fist in Game 2 after scoring a goal. Responded a mildly miffed Sutter, "I don't think Williams knows how to spell the word class."
But it was brother Brent who took the sweetest revenge on the slur on the family name. In Game 3 his tenacious fore-checking was "inspirational," according to Arbour, as the Islanders played what Snepsts later described as "airtight hockey." Said Canuck Coach Roger Neilson, "I don't know if anybody could have beaten them tonight. They played an almost perfect game."
After Gillies put New York up 1-0, Bossy scored the most spectacular goal of the playoffs. With 7:30 remaining in the second period, he picked up his own rebound and, after getting knocked into the air by Defenseman Lars Lindgren, backhanded the puck past Brodeur and a sliding Colin Campbell. "I don't remember how many shots I took at it," Bossy said, "but the one that went in was going to be my last because I was going down."
'It's doubtful whether anyone else could have scored on that play. "Two years ago, even Bossy wouldn't have scored it," said former Islander Eddie Westfall, now a TV color announcer for the team. "He would have let himself be taken out of the play. You can't teach a guy like Bossy how to score that goal, but he can teach himself. And he has."
Indeed, of all the elements that make up the Islanders, Bossy's scoring touch may be the one they could least afford to lose. He finished the regular season, his finest ever, with 147 points, a total only Wayne Gretzky and Phil Esposito have surpassed. Yet, because of Gretzky's remarkable season, Bossy's achievements went largely unnoticed. In the final week of the regular season he tore cartilage and strained ligaments in his left knee. He was virtually immobile against Pittsburgh, and it's no coincidence that the Islanders very nearly lost that series. In a gallant show, they scored two goals in the last 5½ minutes of the deciding game to tie the Penguins, and Tonelli won it in overtime. Bossy, who kept the extent of his injury a secret, played with a heavy brace on his knee that restricted his skating. Still, he led all playoff goal scorers with 17, and had 27 points, second only to Trottier's 29. "You can never let Bossy have anything out there," said Canuck Forward Stan Smyl. "He's got such, marvelous talents, such quick hands."
"Other guys, if you make a mistake, you have time to recover," said Snepsts. "Not with Bossy."
Make no mistake, Bossy is far more than just a sniper, a fact that's often overlooked because he plays on a line with Trottier. The truth is, they need each other equally. Bossy has become an excellent corner worker, is sound defensively, and his mere presence on the power play opens up avenues for Potvin, Trottier and Stefan Persson. He also has learned to "operate in a closet"—a hockey term for making a play in heavy traffic—as was so brilliantly demonstrated by his goal in Game 3. "I've worked too hard in my career to let myself fall on my back in a situation like that," said Bossy. "I know I'm playing on a great team. I've known that since I've been here."
The Islanders scored one more goal in Game 3—into an empty net—to win 3-0 and take a virtually insurmountable lead in the series. That night Arbour, as is his habit, sat in bed and watched tapes of the game until 4 a.m. "I can't sleep anyway after a game, so I might as well be doing something," he said. He finally dozed off, but at 6 a.m. his wife, Claire, elbowed him awake. She couldn't sleep because of the time change, so she asked him to put the tapes on again. What the heck, he thought, he might as well watch them with her. If there's one type of game an old defenseman can sit through three times, it's a shutout. "I called room service for breakfast," said Arbour, "and when the guy came at 6:30 and found us watching a hockey game in bed, he thought he'd walked into a nut house. That's what happens when you stay around this game too long."
Arbour can stay around the Islanders for as long as he likes. Torrey has signed him to a lifetime services contract, and now, after nine years with New York, he has served longer than any active coach in the league. He has quietly—Arbour can be painfully shy—put together a 423-242-160 record from behind the bench, which makes him the fifth-winningest coach in NHL history. "He's a player's coach," says Torrey. "He reveled in playing and enjoys being around players, and they feel that. They also know his basic honesty. Whether they agree with him or not, they know deep down that he's doing what's good for them and for the team."
Earlier in the playoffs, Brent Sutter gave up the puck in his own zone, and the Rangers converted his error into a goal. Arbour played Brent sparingly for a few games. When he returned against the Canucks, he played like a man possessed. Said Potvin, "Everybody sits—Bossy, Trottier, myself. We've all needed a little discipline at some time. Al has taken the talents and egos of all the individuals on this team and made sure that neither gets in the way of the team. Our character is based on his character: a cool, logical assessment of the game and a willingness to go out and work hard to correct things. He's the best of all our leaders, and we've got a number of them."
They've also got a number of Stanley Cups now, with more no doubt to come. As Trottier said on Sunday, "I only hope people don't take us for granted and get tired of seeing us win it."