This is a story for the tabloids. It features a psychic, an inspirational return, some Sinatra, people-page personalities, a cute, cuddly creature, a black-and-white file photo, lost canines that get found, frenzied mobs and things that didn't happen that people swear happened. As the defending Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders met the New York Rangers, Cupless for 43 years, in the best-of-seven Patrick Division finals, the New York dailies dealt restraint a hard body check into the boards, HOCKEY HYSTERIA! roared the New York Post.
At least one thing is fit to print: When the Expressway Series had finally played itself out last Friday night with the Islanders winning 5-2 in Game 6, they had kept alive their dream of winning four consecutive Stanley Cups. And, make no mistake, winning four straight Cups—Montreal set the record by getting five in a row from 1956 to '60—has obsessed the Islanders throughout a season that has been, by their standards, mediocre. That very obsession may have been the root of their mediocrity. So eager were the Islanders to stake a claim to immortality that they became less a hockey team than a bunch of historians.
"We wanted to be like Montreal was six years ago when they only lost eight games," says Left Wing Bob Bourne, the unlikely hero of the series with the Rangers. "But things just started to fall apart." Although the Islanders had the league's stingiest defense during the regular season, their attack sputtered. They struggled to finish second behind Philadelphia in the Patrick Division and tied for sixth overall with a 42-26-12 record. The Rangers, meanwhile, had gone 35-35-10 in their second year under Herb Brooks, the Olympic Goldfinger of a coach. But last season's late rush seemed to have promised more. It took a remark by Philadelphia Coach Bob McCammon, who had described the diminutive Ranger forwards as "Smurfs" before their opening playoff series, to inspire New York past the Flyers. Still, inspiration alone wasn't going to beat a team as big and strong and deep as the Islanders, even with three of their most physical players, Bryan Trottier, Clark Gillies and Dave Langevin, hurting.
The 3-foot-tall, powder-blue, smirking Smurf decked out in a Ranger jersey at the Nassau Coliseum for Game 1 on April 14 was very cute. Less cute was how an Islander fan had fit the stuffed doll with a noose and was brandishing it as he paraded up and down the aisles. Very acute was how the mock hanging foreshadowed the 4-1 thrashing the Islanders were to give the Rangers.
Bourne had been playing left wing in Gillies' stead on a line with Duane (Dog) Sutter and Duane's younger brother, Brent (Pup) Sutter, since Gillies, who would not appear in the series, went down with a knee injury just before the end of the regular season. None of the three had had an excellent year, and their union shouldn't have filled the Rangers with fear. "Guys laugh at us in practice because we handle the puck like a grenade," says Bourne. But he broke open a 1-1 game by assisting on the next three goals, including one apiece by the Sutters. BOURNE-AGAIN CHAMPS BURY RANGERS, punned the Post.
The next night the Islanders were what Gillies would call "the best I've seen in 10 years." Even though their spiritual leader, Trottier, was out with a sprained left knee, the Islanders outshot the Rangers 47-23 and breezed to a 5-0 victory. Once more the Grenadiers led the way. Sutter, D., got his first NHL hat trick; Sutter, B., had a goal and an assist; and Bourne had another three assists. "We're a western Canada type of line," said Bourne afterward. (He's from Saskatchewan; the Sutters are from Alberta.) "Nothing fancy. If a guy's open, you give it to him. Sometimes a good player will wait for somebody to come at him before making a pass, but we pop it to the open guy right away. We don't do a lot of thinking out there."
With 36 seconds left in Game 2, the strains of Frank Sinatra's rendition of New York, New York, a Ranger anthem, wafted through the Coliseum. Given the time, place and score, this seemed a gratuitous slap at the Rangers. As it turned out, the song had been wired into the sound system by an electrician acting alone. Nevertheless, Brooks was incensed, and he demanded a postgame audience with Islander President and General Manager Bill Torrey. "We've got a good rivalry going here, but stuff like that opens deep wounds," said Brooks. Torrey apologized, FAST-LANE ISLES TURNING EXPRESSWAY INTO RUNAWAY, blared the Daily News.
Then the Islanders hit a bottleneck. In Game 3 at Madison Square Garden—45 miles by expressway, tunnel and Manhattan streets, from the Coliseum—the Rangers scored five times to rout Islander Goalie Billy Smith, who'd shut them out for more than 114 straight minutes. The Rangers beat his understudy, Roland Melanson, twice more. Into the third period they went, seemingly in cruise-control, ahead 7-2. But the Islanders struck for four goals, including two with a man down, and appeared to tie the game with :07 remaining when the red light acknowledged a Mike Bossy shot. Referee Bruce Hood, however, had blown his whistle after losing sight of the puck in the scramble in front of the net a moment earlier. The Rangers escaped 7-6, but their third-period collapse augured poorly for Game 4. DEATH-DEFYING FINISH, screamed the Post.
On the following night, though, Ranger Goaltender Eddie Mio, a puckish fellow with a British rocker's 'do, hurled a shutout against the Islanders for almost 59 minutes of Game 4. He stopped 36 shots with an array of Rockette-style kicks and Gil Hodges glovework. Mio did this despite being knocked, unprovoked, on his coccyx in the second period by Duane Sutter. Around the six-minute mark of the final period, with the Rangers leading 3-zip, the organist struck up New York, New York. O solo Mio. Game: 3-1. Set: 2-2. EXPRESSWAY TIE-UP, roared the News.
Islander Coach Al Arbour wasn't going to panic. His club had gotten the shots it had wanted against Mio, he said, but simply couldn't put them by him. Further, throughout the series the Islanders had been doing the things that had characterized their performance the past three years in postseason play: killing penalties ruthlessly (they offed 83.9% for the series) and handling the puck with dexterity on the power play (they converted 30.4% of such opportunities). As the Islanders went home for Game 5, their main concern was getting Trottier back into the lineup. His absence had disoriented Bossy, a linemate. LET'S GET IT ON! drooled the Post.
Among Trottier's many intangible strengths is a knack for being in the right place at the right time. When he not only started Game 5 but also scored its first goal in a characteristically opportunistic way, a Ken Morrow shot caroming off his skate and into the net, the other Islanders fell into line. Six minutes later, Bossy had a goal called back—he swears it went in—but it hardly mattered. Outshooting the Rangers 43-20, the Islanders rolled 7-2. "We were brutal in the defensive zone, and we were brutal without the puck," said Brooks, ISLANDERS MAKE IT HURT, boomed Newsday.
No one had pained the Rangers more than Bourne, who again contributed three assists and scored on a coast-to-coast dash, during which he eluded three Rangers, slipped the puck between another's skates, retrieved it and flipped it by Mio. "I haven't scored a goal like that since my junior days," he said. "It showed me I haven't lost it."
Earlier this season some were wondering. Bourne, 28, is a frank and talkative former farm boy who grew up just outside Netherhill, Saskatchewan (pop. 55) and in 1972 played baseball with the Class A Covington (Va.) Astros of the Appalachian League. He was platooned at first base with a righthand-hitting slugger named Clark Gillies. This is Bourne's ninth year in the NHL, and he has scored more than 30 goals three times. This season, however, Bourne finished the regular season with just 20 goals. "Bobby was a lot like the team at the beginning of the season," says Torrey. "He couldn't buy a goal and then lost his confidence."
But Bourne has blossomed alongside Dog and Pup, who like to dump the puck into the offensive zone and let Bourne chase it. Bourne is so fast that the defense finds itself cheating toward the net to limit his effectiveness, and that opens up a cavity near the blue line from which the Sutters can let fly. "Brent's so good at anticipating, he takes advantage of that," says Torrey. "And he and Duane crisscross very well." The Sutter-Sutter-Bourne triad accounted for 32 of the Islanders' 71 points in this series. Twelve of them were provided by Bourne, who set a team record for most points in a playoff series.
None of this surprised a woman from Seaford, N.Y. named Barbara Stabiner. She's a soothsayer who's known as The Seer of Seaford. The Islanders are destined to win a fourth consecutive Cup, with Bourne "emerging from the series on the energy level that will carry him to the heights of his career for the next two years," Stabiner told Newsday before the playoffs began. Fact is, The Seer of Seaford has been correct before. She foresaw the Islanders' last three Cups. She correctly predicted seven of the eight first-round playoff winners this year. What's more, she says, she placed Burt and Loni in Splitsville long before the National Enquirer did.
"I see it ending tonight," she said as the series returned to the Garden for Game 6, with Rangers Dave Maloney, Mike Allison, Mike Rogers and the future Mr. Carol Alt (a.k.a. Ron Greschner) all hors de combat. "I was a little cloudy, but now I see it."
The Islanders have never minded facing the Rangers on their home ice. "All of us love playing in the Garden," said Duane Sutter. "The fans there are so...ugly." You need a degree in proctology to understand the epithets some of them hurl at the Islanders. Islander fans are less scatological, but more sarcastic. In both games at the Coliseum they serenaded Ron Duguay, the Ranger forward who spends off-evenings among the Eurolizards at Manhattan discos, with wolf whistles every time he touched the puck. All the Rangers were subjected to chants of "Nineteen forty, nineteen forty," a snide reminder of when they last won the Cup. The players, by comparison, treat one another with Etonian respect.
"I've always liked the Rangers," says Bourne. "I just don't like Ranger fans. I've never seen people so vulgar, like a bunch of animals, in my entire life. To call other human beings what they do.... Maybe I'm naive, but that gets me pumped up."
The Islanders won the finale by finally unleashing their money line of John (Mad Dog) Tonelli, Butch Goring and Bob Nystrom. These three always seem to come up with critical goals in big games. In this case Goring scored to break a 2-2 tie in the final period. "Coming out for the third we had 20 guys fighting to be heroes," said Tonelli, who got the Islanders' first goal and fed Goring for their second and third. "Butch and Bobby Ny and I really wanted to have a big game. We love that kind of pressure."
Torrey had applied pressure of his own. At about the time The Seer of Sea-ford was making her playoff picks—after disposing of Boston, the Islanders will defeat Chicago—Torrey was busy in the Islander locker room, posting and captioning a black-and-white UPI photo of Coach Toe Blake and Marcel Bonin hoisting Montreal's fourth straight Cup. "History is yours for the making," he wrote. While history was once a handicap, it now seems to inspire.
After Game 6 Denis Potvin, the Islander captain, spoke of his team's depth. Trottier had done half-duty, Bossy had hardly been a factor (four points for the series) and Smith had been uneven in goal, yet the Islanders won going away. "And tonight we got another line scoring," he said with a little awe. ISLES DEEP-6 RANGERS, postmortemed the Post.
In the Islanders' grand scheme, that's just the bulldog edition. There's a headline all set to run in the sports final of their minds. It goes something like, TAB ISLES HAB HEIRS.