Make no mistake, the New York Islanders are old with a capital O—as in the big Three-Oh—which rhymes with slow, which means no mo' Stanley Cups all in a row. Just how old are these hoary hustlers from Uniondale? Nine Islanders are more than 30, and that has caused overcrowding in the Shady Arbour Geriatric Home, a.k.a. the Nassau Mauso...er, Coliseum. And the Isles are so slow, particularly on defense, that they're the only NHL team that could pick up speed by dressing the Zamboni.
But old is one thing, toothless another, as New York proved last week by dumping, in order, the Canadiens, Devils, Flyers and Black Hawks to improve its record to 25-16-1. Thus, the Islanders moved to within six points of the Patrick Division-leading Flyers and quieted, for now, the gravediggers who were poised to bury the Isles in—a little background music please, Mr. Serling—the Comfort Zone. More important, by allowing only 11 goals in the four games, the Islanders showed that they can still play tough and nasty in front of their own goal when they put their minds to it, resurrecting the style that had made them winners of 19 straight Stanley Cup playoff series before losing to Edmonton in last spring's final.
"You give me a 30-year-old hockey player who's still got the fire and drive and pride, and I'll take him every time," says Islanders coach Al Arbour, who played in the NHL until he was 38. "The problem is getting them out of that comfort zone."
The comfort zone is as vast as prosperity, as timeless as complacency, and it's where the Islanders wallowed for most of the first half of the season—winning one, losing one. This suggested to some observers that old Islanders never die, they just play that way. "I was in the comfort zone for a while," admits 10-year New York veteran Bob Bourne, 30, who was once among the fastest skaters in the league. "A lot of us were.... You think, 'What is it to be in first place [in the regular season]? Where did it get us last year?' Two of the years we won the Cup, we finished second in our division. There's such a fine line between winning and losing. So many little sacrifices you have to make that we weren't making. Plus, I don't care what anyone says, playing an extra 100 playoff games in the last five years takes its toll. Those were tough games, a lot of wear and tear in them. It's no coincidence that our veterans are the ones getting hurt this year."
The Isles' injury list has grown to include Ken Morrow, Bob Nystrom, Clark Gillies, Anders Kallur, Stefan Persson and Pat LaFontaine. Among that group, only the 19-year-old LaFontaine, who is out indefinitely with mononucleosis, is younger than 28, fueling speculation that the Islanders are literally falling apart before general manager Bill Torrey's eyes. Torrey's response has been to call in the raw recruits: At one point last week the Islanders had seven rookies in uniform. But if that is the lineup Torrey fields in the playoffs, New York will be gone in the opening round. The Isles will only go as far as their veterans, seeking one last hurrah, can take them.
"All these questions about old age, crickety bones and youth," laments Bryan Trottier, 28, who has been slowed by the adductor muscle he pulled in one leg during the Canada Cup series in September. "We're not in third place because we're old. It's not because we're tired. It's not because we mean to cheat the fans. It's a hundred things: We've been laying back too much; we've been chasing the play instead of controlling it; we're not as vicious as we should be."
"Too old?" asks Denis Potvin, 31, no longer the dominant—and vicious—defenseman he was. "That's ridiculous, and management knows it's ridiculous. The only 'old' that matters is getting the old game together. I feel good, feel young and strong. If you're 22 you're going to play horsebleep at times. Well, when you're 32 you do, too. But come April and May, you're going to want more of those 30-year-olds."
The Islanders' ills this season began in earnest the night of Dec. 5, when they played the Oilers for the first time since losing the Cup to them. New York wanted a win badly, to reassert its dominance. The Isles' top line of John Tonelli, Brent Sutter and Mike Bossy—which has carried New York this season—potted two goals on the opening shift, but thereafter it was all Oilers. Edmonton won 6-4 going away. The Islanders, seemingly feeling their age, then lost their next three games—to Hartford, New Jersey and Pittsburgh, no less. Time was when they could have thrown their jerseys on the ice and come away with two points from those teams, but now if the Islanders don't hit, they're lucky to win.
"Five years ago we won a lot of games on talent," recalls Torrey. "But we also won some games on sheer determination and hard work. Those are the games we're missing. We've gotten away with turning it on and turning it off for the past few years, but an older team can't do that, and it's time our players realized it."
Torrey called a meeting with 11 of his veterans on Dec. 29, after the Islanders' slump had reached six defeats in 11 games. The message: If you want to stay; start to play. "Bill finally got fed up," says Bourne. "There are a lot of personal goals coming ahead of team goals right now, and I haven't seen that around here for a long time. Ice-time worries, goal and assist totals, who plays on the power play. More this year than ever before. We've suffered nine of our 16 losses by one goal, and four of those have come in overtime. That's a perfect example. Whenever we go into OT, everyone's thinking, 'I want to be the hero.' "
Following Torrey's chat, the Isles beat St. Louis, lost to Minnesota, beat Detroit and lost 7-3 to Buffalo on Jan. 5 in what many observers feel was New York's worst game in 10 years. The Islanders' brain trust decided to sit captain Denis Potvin out against the Red Wings, so lethargic was his play, and the move assumed a double-edged swipe when Trottier, ordinarily the Isles' alternate captain, was bypassed for that role in favor of Bossy, who's off to his finest start ever with 37 goals and 39 assists in his first 41 games. "Is Trots the only one who can show leadership? Bossy's done a few things for this team in seven years, too," says Torrey, bristling at the suggestion that he was cracking the whip at the old war-horses a little early this year. "I wouldn't say waiting until the season's half over is exactly cracking the whip. Sure, all those playoff games the past five years have taken their toll. But these guys have had three months of rest so far this season. They should be just about ready to play."
Apparently they are. Last week the Islanders—no doubt sparked by the waiving of center Butch Goring, 35, the only Islander to have played in all 99 of the team's playoff games the past five seasons, to Boston—put on the sort of measured, disciplined performance that has been their trademark every spring.
"This team's success has always started with its defense," said Tonelli on Saturday after the Isles beat the Flyers 5-3, the fourth straight win for rookie goalie Kelly Hrudey. "It's a good sign to start winning some close-checking, physical games."
Another good sign was the rejuvenation of Trottier, who, reunited with Bossy and Tonelli, was on the ice for 12 of the 17 goals the Islanders tallied during the week, scoring six himself, assisting on four others and twice being named the game's first star. The spurt increased his totals for the year to 16 goals and 15 assists in 30 games—still far, far below his career average of 107 points a year. The suspicion lingers that Trottier has simply given too much for too long and has grown old before his time. He's certainly not the offensive player he once was. But there's not a better defensive center in the game, and the Islanders can't win without him.
With him, who knows? Asked what he learned about his team last week, Torrey, looking relieved, said: "There's a few more miles left in it."