Clark Gillies's face looked like a topographical map of the Laurentians—the mountain range in Quebec to which many of the Montreal Canadiens will soon be headed for golf—last Saturday night after the New York Islanders clinched their Stanley Cup semifinal series with Montreal by beating the Canadiens 4-1. The Islander forward's left eye had two cuts between the lid and the brow, and the bridge of his nose was swollen and scraped to a shine. From previous encounters over the past 10 seasons, he also had a network of scars on his forehead and jaw. How battered was he? "I don't know when I've felt better," said Gillies, grinning. "Mentally or physically. It just really feels good to be out there with some confidence again."
It was Gillies's immovable presence in front of the Montreal net that ultimately led to the demise of the Canadiens in six rugged games—that and a thundering Bryan Trottier check in Game 4 that nearly embedded Montreal captain Bob Gainey's head in the endboards in Nassau Coliseum and seemed to unnerve each and every one of the Habs.
Then there was John Tonelli, elbows flying and stick working like a scythe, wresting control of the corners after the Isles had fallen behind two games to none. Not to mention rookie Pat Flatley setting up nightly camp at the top of the slot, firing wrist shots past Canadien goaltender Steve Penney, whose playoff stock suddenly crashed when the Isles discovered he couldn't stop shots above the waist. And, lest we forget, there was also Islander goalie Billy Smith single-handedly turning the series around midway through Game 4 by stuffing Mats Naslund, Montreal's leading scorer in the playoffs, on a penalty shot—only the 11th such shot in Stanley Cup history. And, speaking of scorers, wasn't that Mike Bossy finishing off the Canadiens with two riflelike shots in Game 6, giving him three game-winning goals in the series and a total of 17 in his playoff career, one shy of Maurice Richard's alltime Cup record?
Oh, was it ever. The Islanders had finally shown the mettle that has enabled them to win the Cup four years straight and become the only professional sports dynasty of the '80s. Until last week the Isles' Drive for Five had been a lurching, sputtering journey that seemed to be held together solely by Smith's indomitable goaltending and occasional spurts of animal ferocity whenever the team was backed into a corner.
May 13, 1984
"We've had to struggle in the playoffs from Game 1 this year," said coach Al Arbour, whose 108 playoff coaching victories put him just three short of Scotty Bowman's alltime record. "We've had adversity in all departments. You name it, we've had it."
The Islander injury toll in postseason play this year has been staggering. At one time or another Ken Morrow, Brent Sutter, Bob Bourne, Stefan Persson, Anders Kallur, Pat LaFontaine, Tonelli, Bob Nystrom, Dave Langevin and Mats Hallin have all had to sit out. Those guys together could win the Norris Division. And both Langevin's and Denis Potvin's fathers have died since the playoffs began. But much of New York's adversity has been self-imposed. The team has taken a raft of stupid penalties, the bulk of them by Trottier, who amassed 21 minors and one major in the first 14 playoff games—47 minutes in all—after drawing only 59 minutes in the entire regular season. All told, the Isles have been short-handed in the playoffs 81 times, their opponents only 59—a statistic that doesn't reflect an anti-Islander bias on the part of the referees, Arbour's protests notwithstanding.
To make matters worse, the Islander power play—which had an astounding 29.6% success rate (and 1.3 goals per game) during the last four playoffs—has limped along at a 15.3% clip this year (.6 goals per game), crippled by an 0-for-21 start against the Rangers and the anemic point play of Potvin (one goal, four assists to date). In short, the Islanders seemed ripe to be beaten.
Except they wouldn't lose. In the first round, a dramatic series against the Rangers decided in overtime, Smith wouldn't let the Islanders lose. In the second round, against the defense-minded Capitals, Washington goaltenders Pat Riggin and Al Jensen wouldn't let the Capitals win, allowing the Isles to score one cheap goal after another. No team is better than the Islanders at breaking a goaltender's concentration: surreptitiously kicking his skates, "accidentally" crashing into the goal, yapping at him, screening him. "Every time the goalie touches the puck, we want him to have to think about it," says one Islander.
Which is exactly what happened last week to Penney. "We knew we were getting to him when he took a slashing penalty on Tonelli in the third game," said Duane Sutter, one of New York's principal harassers. "It was the same thing with Pete Peeters of Boston last year. You can't let the goalie beat you."
Unless that goalie happens to be Smith, who thrives not only on rough stuff but also on pressure. In Game 4, the score was 1-1 at 15:03 of the second period when rookie Islander defenseman Gord Dineen hauled down Naslund on a breakaway. Referee Bruce Hood correctly called for that penalty shot, placing the puck at center ice for Naslund to take in alone. "I knew it was the game, win or lose," Naslund said afterward. "I was trying between his legs, and I would probably do the same thing again."
Smith, for his part, was thinking: Stay on your feet; wait for him to make the first move. Naslund skated in, unconvincingly faked a shot and popped a backhand into Smith's pads. Smith made the stop look embarrassingly easy. Bossy scored a minute and a half later, and the Islanders bottled up the Canadien attack the rest of the way to win 3-1. Significantly, they killed nine of 10 Montreal power plays, one of which came after a five-minute boarding penalty on Trottier, who bounded at Gainey like a kangaroo while his back was turned. The hit drove the Canadien captain Down Under, leaving him dazed, bloody and, it was eventually learned, with a dislocated right shoulder. Canadien defenseman Rick Green predicted that the repercussions of Trottier's cheap shot would carry over through the rest of the series. "The guys in this room won't forget it," he said.
And they didn't. For the last two games of the series, few Canadiens would venture near the boards without first looking over their shoulders. Penney, for his part, took to counting the hairs on the back of Gillies's neck, so intimate did they become. Asked why he didn't haul off and whack the 6'3", 210 pound Gillies in the ankles with his stick—as Smith would have happily done in his place—Penney revealed that before Game 5, played in Montreal's Forum, both teams were warned by referee Bob Myers that he would brook no monkey business from or against either goalie. Consequently, just over two minutes into the game, Smith gave Myers a theatrical death spiral when Montreal's Ryan Walter grazed him ("He elbowed me!" protests Smith, "Would I lie to you?"). On the resulting power play Trottier scored to give the Islanders a lead they would never relinquish. Less than six minutes later Brent Sutter beat Steve Shutt—who looked like a doorman at the Ritz Carlton, gracefully bowing as Sutter passed—one-on-one to score the winning goal when the Isles were shorthanded. And from there on it was Smitty-bar-the-door, the teams trading third-period goals to make the final 3-1 Islanders.
"It was like a big elephant against a small cat," a Montreal cab driver said eloquently the next morning. The intimidated Canadiens had all but surrendered the slot and the boards to the Islanders, choosing instead to dart felinely about the perimeters.
The intimidation showed in a hundred different ways in Game 6 in the Coliseum. Time and again the Canadien forwards pulled up when crossing the blue line, content to slap long shots, which Smith turned away easily, rather than drive for the slot. They passed the puck too soon and too often, changed on the fly slowly and checked with their sticks rather than their bodies. The Islanders had worn them out. Gillies, who this year had struggled through his worst regular season ever, getting only 12 goals, opened the scoring at 4:51 of the first period with his seventh goal of the playoffs, taking a nice pass from Trottier and then waiting until Penney had collapsed before flipping it into the top corner one second after an Islander power play had expired. It marked the fourth game in a row in which the Isles had gotten the jump on the Canadiens because of a power play, which effectively negated the patient checking game that had gotten the Habs wins in the first two games of the series.
Bossy made it 2-zip less than three minutes later, stealing the puck from Montreal's Bobby Smith and uncorking a monstrous drive into the top shelf past Penney's catching glove. "That was the old Mike Bossy shot," said a glowing Arbour. And that was all the cushion the Islanders would need, as they held the Canadiens to one goal for the third straight game, winning 4-1. Bossy added his eighth goal of the playoffs in the third period—tying Flatley for the team goal-scoring lead and giving him 77 career postseason goals, two behind Jean Beliveau and five short of Richard on the all-time list.
Islander veterans have learned that it's the toughest team in the NHL that wins the Cup. The Isles were the toughest again last week. Of course, toughness has nothing to do with fighting—well, maybe just a little—it's the willingness to stand in front of the net while being cross-checked from behind, to go into a corner with a defenseman bearing down on you and not give up the puck, to force your way into the slot when there are nothing but elbows and sticks to welcome you. It's Al Arbour-style hockey, playoff hockey, and it's the reason the Islanders will beat the Edmonton Oilers and win their fifth straight Cup. Five games? Six games? It doesn't matter. The Islanders will win it. As Montreal coach Jacques Lemaire said Saturday night, "They'll win it because they're the best hockey team in America. They were too strong for us. They're good all over."
But Jacques, are they as good as the Canadiens were in '79 when you, Larry Robinson, Guy Lafleur and Ken Dryden were in your prime? "That's hard to say," Lemaire said with a smile. "But they're the best I've seen lately."