The Islanders also won 19 straight playoff series between 1980 and 1984 before losing to the Edmonton Oilers in the '84 Stanley Cup Final. It was an amazing run, and if you asked Ed Westfall in 1972 whether he saw the makings of a great team while he was the captain of the expansion Islanders, his answer would have been "no way!"
The 1972-73 Islanders were downright awful, just like the early 1960s Boston Bruins, the club that signed Westfall as a teenager and brought him up to the NHL. Westfall had been part of two Bruins' Stanley Cup teams, 1970 and 1972, and found himself starting all over at the bottom of the then 16-team NHL in 1972.
"I helped set all the negative records in the NHL with the Boston Bruins and then we went on to win two Stanley Cups," Westfall said. "And the Islanders came into being in the backyard of the Rangers and we were the worst team. I broke all of the negative records with the Islanders I set with the Bruins, and that team went on to win four consecutive Stanley Cups. You don’t know how good the good ones are until you had a few bad ones."
The Islanders won just 12 games in 1972-73, but Westfall still relishes one particular victory that season. The "hapless" Islanders went into Boston and beat the Bruins 9-7 on Jan. 18, 1973.
"I also remind them all the time, in jest, a little bit tongue in cheek, back then they still had (Bobby) Orr and (Phil) Esposito and all of the great players from the Stanley Cup of '72, they haven’t won a Stanley Cup since and the Islanders have won four," said Westfall, who was a long time TV color commentator for the Islanders following his retirement in 1979, the year before the Islanders began the four-year streak.
The term "hapless" bothered Westfall and the members of that first Islanders team and still does today. The Islanders won 12, lost 60 and tied six other games, finishing with just 30 points.
"That is probably why you see all of these wonderful hockey players who have played almost 20 years," said Westfall. "Do you call them hapless because they haven’t won a Stanley Cup in 20 years? It is a test. It’s a test to be a good player at the right time on the right team."
Westfall was a good player, a superb penalty killer with good defensive skills up front. When he broke in with the Bruins, neither Orr nor Esposito were there, but there were a few pieces to the puzzle in goaltender Ed Johnston and left wing John Bucyk. And at least the Bruins played before a partisan Boston crowd during the bad years. Westfall’s Islanders weren’t treated like the home team when they played the Rangers those first few years at the Nassau Coliseum.
"Well, absolutely for the first couples of years, it was a home game for the Rangers, understandably," said Westfall. "We knew that. There was no question about that, but it didn’t take long. Three years later, we beat the Rangers in the last regular-season game and then we beat them in the playoffs, we knocked them out."
It was in April 1975 that the Rangers-Islanders rivalry became personal from the fans' standpoints. Years later, Denis Potvin became the target of Rangers fans after he delivered a check that contributed to Ulf Nilsson breaking his ankle. Actually, it was bad Garden ice that caused the ankle break, but never let facts get in the way of a good story. Thirty years later, the familiar Potvin chant continues whether the Rangers' opponent is the Islanders or another team. But it was Westfall who helped lay the foundation that solidified the rivalry in overtime of the third and final game of the opening playoff series in 1975.
"Hapless" became "Cinderella" then champions within eight years.
"Well a hard-working team that wasn’t successful was very successful starting in 1975 and for the next 10 years, probably the best franchise in the league."
-- Ed Westfall
In 1975, the Islanders did something that happened just once before in NHL history and has not been duplicated in the playoffs in the past 33 years. After beating the Rangers, they lost three straight to Pittsburgh and came back to win the series. The Islanders and the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs are the only NHL teams to stage comebacks after trailing 3-0. They also trailed the Flyers 3-0 and came back to tie that series.
The Rangers, Penguins and Islanders all played prominent roles in the transformation from hapless to Cinderella to champions. The Rangers beat the Islanders in the 1979 semifinals which forced Islanders General Manager Bill Torrey to make some changes. The Islanders' first Stanley Cup came at the expense of the Flyers in 1980 and in 1982, the Penguins had a late two-goal lead in the deciding game of the opening round of the opening round of the playoffs. The Islanders rallied to win in overtime eliminating Pittsburgh and easily won their third straight Stanley Cup.
Most of the Islanders' negative records have fallen over the years. There is one record the team holds that may never be touched in hockey or baseball or basketball though. The team won 19 straight playoff series; no team has come close to that mark in 24 years. The one-time "hapless" New York Islanders were not hapless anymore.