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Gretzky, Islanders, NHL's new look dominated '81-82

Tuesday, 10.16.2012 / 9:45 PM / E.J. Hradek's Analysis

By EJ Hradek - NHL.com Analyst

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Gretzky, Islanders, NHL's new look dominated '81-82
E.J. Hradek recalls the top storylines of the 1981-82 season, including Wayne Gretzky's record production and the New York Islanders' dynasty.

Wayne Gretzky, in his third NHL season, took further aim at the record book during the 1981-82 campaign, putting up some eye-popping numbers, some of which still stand as records to this day. As well, the Great One's sensational play drove the Edmonton Oilers to the League's second-best mark.

Gretzky and his youthful posse would suffer some unexpected -- as well as historic -- growing pains early in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Meanwhile, back East, the New York Islanders continued to be the dominant force on the circuit, completing the regular season with a League-best 118 points. Bryan Trottier's team finished 26 points ahead of its closest rival in the Patrick Division.

In our third installment on the wild and crazy '80s, I'll look back on some of the top memories, moments and stories that kept the hockey world on edge during the '81-82 season.

HRADEK ON '80-81 SEASON

Going back-to-back

By E.J. Hradek - NHL.com Analyst
E.J. Hradek continued his look back at the high-scoring decade of the 1980s with the '80-81 season, which featured the Islanders' Cup repeat and Mike Bossy scoring 50 goals in 50 games.
READ MORE ›

1. TIME FOR A MAKEOVER

There was a new look to the NHL standings for the '81-82 campaign. The teams were realigned within existing divisions with the new groupings based on geographic areas.

Most directly, that meant Calgary, after skating for one season in the Patrick Division alongside Northeast corridor stalwarts from New York, Long Island, Philadelphia and Washington, would move into the more Western-based Smythe Division.

Los Angeles, previously positioned in the Norris Division with Montreal, Pittsburgh, Hartford and Detroit, also moved to the Smythe, joining Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Colorado.

The more geographically pleasing look allowed for the 21-team League to move to an unbalanced schedule, which focused on intradivision play. Previously, using a balanced schedule, the teams played one another an equal number of times (four) during the regular season.

The new schedule would have clubs in the three five-team divisions facing off against one another eight times per season, while the clubs in the six-team Norris Division would meet seven times per year. All teams would play opponents outside of their division three times.

The change dramatically impacted the playoffs. Teams would now advance out of their particular division to qualify for the conference final. It opened an era that fostered the development of some of the nastiest geographical rivalries in League history.

2. FASTEST FIFTY

A season earlier, in '80-81, Mike Bossy made major news when he matched Maurice "Rocket" Richard's unique record of scoring 50 goals in the first 50 games.

Less than a year later, Wayne Gretzky did what he did to most records -- he destroyed it.

On Dec. 30, Gretzky hit the 50-goal mark in just his 39th game. And, he did it in spectacular fashion with a five-goal performance.

Gretzky scored four of the goals against goalie Pete Peeters. Gretzky slid the historic marker into an empty net. That record for the fastest 50 goals from the start of the season still stands.

3. BEYOND GREATNESS

By the end of the '81-82 regular season, hockey observers and fans were flabbergasted by the statistical dominance of Gretzky.

Simply, he'd even outdone himself.

In 80 games, the Great One netted 92 goals, smashing the previous single-season mark of 76 markers, set by Boston's Phil Esposito during the 1970-71 campaign. The game's pass-master general, Gretzky distributed 120 assists, breaking his own record of 109 from the previous season.

As well, Gretzky became the first player in League history to crack the 200-point barrier, finishing with a single-season mark of 212 points. Gretzky remains the only NHL player to record 200 or more points in a single season. He would accomplish that amazing feat four times during his legendary career.

4. RECORD STREAK

The Islanders flexed their muscles during the regular season, establishing a League record with 15 consecutive victories from Jan. 21 through Feb. 20, breaking the old mark set by the 1929-30 Bruins (14 straight wins).

Al Arbour's team broke the record with a 3-2 victory against over the visiting Rockies. Left wing John Tonelli scored the game-winner in the final minutes to cement their place in the record book. The Islanders' streak included four wins against the Penguins, who'd eventually snap the string with a 4-3 victory on Feb. 21 in Pittsburgh.

The Islanders' record stood until the 1992-93 season, when the Penguins established a new mark, winning 17 straight. However, they scored two of those wins in overtime. In the '81-82 season, the League had yet to adopt the five-minute overtime period, making the Islanders' streak all that more impressive.

5. CUP HAT TRICK

The Islanders lifted the Stanley Cup for a third straight time on May 16, in Vancouver, sailing past the competition after a mighty first-round scare against the Penguins.

Down 3-1 in the final six minutes of the fifth and deciding game against the Penguins at Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders rallied for two goals to send the game to OT. Tonelli, who scored the tying goal, completed his heroic turn, scoring the game-winner to push the Islanders to the next round.

Properly humbled, the Islanders went 12-2 during the rest of the playoffs -- winning their last nine postseason games -- en route to their third straight championship. Bossy, who scored 17 goals and 27 points in 19 playoff games, skated away with the Conn Smythe Trophy.

6. MIRACLE ON MANCHESTER

After an 111-point regular season, Gretzky's Oilers figured to make quick work of the Los Angeles Kings in their first round best-of-5 series. After all, the Oilers had finished a whopping 48 points better than the Kings in the final standings.

Still, the series was tied, 1-1, when the clubs took the ice for Game 3 in Los Angeles on April 10.

Things seemed to be going as expected in the first two periods with the Oilers jumping out to a 5-0 lead, toying with their overmatched foes. So much so, the youthful Oilers were laughing at the Kings from their bench. Apparently, that didn't sit well with the home team.

In the third period, somehow, the Kings were reborn. The underdogs scored five goals, tying the game with five seconds left in regulation time on a goal by Steve Bozak, electrifying the crowd at The Forum.

Daryl Evans
Daryl Evans
Right Wing - Career Stats
Goals: 22 | Assists: 30 | Points: 52
Teams: LAK, WSH, TOR | GP: 113

In OT, at the 2:35 mark, Daryl Evans capped the shocking comeback, beating Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr and lifting the Kings to a 2-1 series lead. (An examination of the game footage will show that the bearded Evans bears a striking resemblance to modern-day comedian Zach Galifiankakis.)

Despite the historic meltdown, Edmonton managed to tie the series, winning Game 4 in L.A., forcing a fifth game at Northlands Coliseum. The return to home ice wasn't enough to stave off the pesky Kings, who scored a 7-4 win in the deciding game.

Some 30 years later, Kings fans still have fond memories of their team's amazing comeback. It was tabbed the "Miracle on Manchester," because the Forum was located on Manchester Boulevard in the L.A. suburb of Inglewood.

7. TOWEL POWER

After mediocre 30-33-17 regular season that included an outright dismal 10-25-5 road mark, the Vancouver Canucks went on a magical playoff run that saw them advance to the Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.

The Canucks -- led by top scorers Stan Smyl and Thomas Gradin and goalie "King" Richard Brodeur (no relation to New Jersey Devils legend Martin Brodeur) -- seemed to respond to an unexpected late-season coaching move. Assistant coach Roger Neilson took over the bench when head man Harry Neale was slapped with a 10-game suspension for an altercation with fans during a game in Quebec City on March 20.

When the team finished the regular season 5-0-1 under Neilson, then swept the Flames in a best-of-5 first-round series, management opted to make the move permanent. (Neale was moved into the GM position for the beginning of the following season.)

In round two, the Canucks clobbered the Kings, winning the series, 4-1, to advance to the Campbell Conference Final. Vancouver continued its roll, blowing through the Chicago Blackhawks in five games. That series is best remembered for the moment in Game 2 at the old Chicago Stadium, when Neilson, unhappy about a series of calls by the officials, waved a white towel on the end of a hockey stick in mock surrender.

When the series returned to Vancouver for Game 3, Canucks fans rocked the Pacific Coliseum, waving towels of support. The clock finally struck midnight for the Cinderella Canucks in the Final when they were swept by the dynastic Islanders.

8. ROOKIE JET

Selected first by the Winnipeg Jets in the 1981 NHL Draft, 18-year-old Dale Hawerchuk looked anything but a teenager in his first NHL season. In 80 games, the Toronto native scored 45 goals and dished out 58 assists for a total of 103 points.

In a short playoff run, Hawerchuk netted a goal and seven assists in four games.

Dale Hawerchuk poses with the Calder Trophy after earning Rookie of the Year honors for the 1981-82 season. Hawerchuk notched 518 goals and 891 assists throughout a Hall-of-Fame career that spanned 1,188 games. (Photo: Denis Brodeur/Getty Images)

At season's end, Hawerchuk outdistanced Boston's Barry Pederson for Calder Trophy honors. In 2001, after putting up 1,409 points during a 17-year career, Hawerchuk received another honor: He was elected into the Hall of Fame.

9. SOVIET DOMINANCE

While not a part of the NHL season, the 1981 Canada Cup, which was contested in early September, came down to a one-game championship showdown between host country Canada and its archrival, the Soviet Union.

Canada rode a five-goal third period to a 7-3 victory against the Soviets in the round-robin portion of the six-nation international gathering (Czechoslovakia, Finland, Sweden and the United States were the other participants).

In the title game, however, the Soviets turned the tables, scoring five goals in the final period en route to an 8-1 rout.

The Soviets, led by the famed KLM line of Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov as well as elite goalie Vladislav Tretiak, came to the tournament looking to make a statement after a shocking upset loss to the American amateurs at the 1980 Winter Olympics. An 8-1 win against Canada at the Montreal Forum certainly accomplished that goal.

10. ROCKY MOUNTAIN, BYE

The League's worst team, the Colorado Rockies, earned just 49 points with an 18-49-13 record. On eight occasions, the Rockies surrendered eight or more goals in a game during the long season.

The club's poor play didn't help things at the gate. Finally, at season's end, the team was sold and relocated to New Jersey, where they'd become the Devils.

It was the franchise's second move. They originally entered the NHL as the Kansas City Scouts in 1974. The team played two seasons in K.C. before moving to Denver.

In 1995, Denver would get another shot at hockey when the Quebec Nordiques relocated to become the current day Colorado Avalanche.

Follow E.J. Hradek on Twitter: @EJHradek_NHL

Quote of the Day

I'm just excited about the opportunity. I've been on the ice earlier than usual and in the weight room, pushing around a little more weights than usual. Every day I go into a workout with a smile on my face and ready to go. When you do have a little more responsibility, you want to take your lunch pail and get ready to work.

— Brian Elliott to Jeremy Rutherford of the Post-Dispatch on being the Blues' No. 1 goalie