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Maven's Memories - Billy Smith Saves Game One of the 1983 Final

Stan Fischler reflects upon Billy Smith's lights out performance in Game 1 of the 1983 Stanley Cup Final.

by Stan Fischler StanFischler /

This will be the toughest Final we've had -- Defenseman Stefan Persson.

How could it not be?

Lining up on the other side of Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton were the Oilers with a lineup headlined by Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jarri Kurri and Kevin Lowe, among other stars.

In the end -- and looking backward -- Game One of the 1983 Final would turn out to be the contest that would open the gates to the Isles fourth straight Cup.

If the three-time champions needed any motivation, all they had to do was pick up the newspapers or turn on the tv and they got their fill -- of Oilers.

"All we're hearing about is how great they are," snapped Bob Bourne. "It's as if they're the only team in the Final." 

The critics picked the young, fast, powerful Oilers to win. Meanwhile New York was coming off a so-so, for them, season and, supposedly getting a bit long in the tooth."

Well before the opening face-off a Filibuster War was ignited by Oilers boss, Glen (Slats) Sather. His portrayal of the upcoming series both amused and angered the defending champions.

"It'll be the 'Big Apple' against the 'Poor Little Country Boys,'" Slats observed before a media horde. "Think about it; they've got the most fans, they come from the richest area in North America and they're the three-time Stanley Cup champions.

"I mean some of our guys haven't even played pro hockey as long as they've been winning Stanley Cups."

On the other hand, Edmonton had blitzed through the three opening playoff rounds with an 11-1 record. They also seemed to have a collective chip on their shoulders.

"They're so damn cocky," said Bourne. "The thing that bugs me is that they don't give us any respect. The Flyers, the Rangers and the Bruins respect us. Edmonton doesn't respect anyone."

Clark Gillies: "We want to beat them more than anything. You know why? Because they think they're the greatest thing since the invention of sliced bread."

Opening night -- May 10, 1983 -- drew the expected capacity crowd at Northlands Coliseum with many fans looking forward to a sidebar battle between the NHL's two top snipers, Wayne Gretzky vs. Mike Bossy. 

But unknown to everyone -- except for the Isles general staff -- a medical melodrama was unfolding on the Visitors side. Suffering from severe tonsillitis, Bossy was deemed unfit to play by team physician Dr. Jeff Minkoff. The news, however, was withheld until game time.

Bossy: "My head hurt; my glands were enormous; every part of my body ached. I wanted to be with the team but Al (Arbour) sent me home in a cab."

Video: 1982-83 Islanders win fourth straight Stanley Cup

That crippled the famed Bossy-Clark Gillies-Bryan Trottier line at least for one night. But it did not curb the Islanders confidence. 

"Granted," said Trottier, "Mike adds so many dimensions to our game and to what we can do. But his absence won't change our forechecking style or our passing or checking."

True enough; but it also didn't deter the "Murderers Row" of Gretzky, Messier, Kurri, Glenn Anderson and the rest of the high-flying home club from launching an overpowering offense from the opening face-off right down to the final buzzer. 

The bitterness between the rivals was evident early in the first period when Oilers toughie Dave Hunter felled Isles young blue liner Tomas Jonsson with an elbow. Minutes later, Jonsson was high-sticked, knocked to the ice and momentarily KO'd. 

The referee missed the infraction and eventually Tomas made it back to the bench. Now it was the Champs turn to wreak revenge -- on the scoreboard. In retrospect, the Isles counterattack produced one of the most important goals in the club's 47-year history. 

Bourne grabbed possession of the puck along the boards to goalie Andy Moog's right, passing it to Persson at the near point. The defenseman's shot hit Gretzky in the face-off circle.

Bourne quickly recovered the puck and passed it to Duane (Dog) Sutter at the far post. Dog had nothing but an open net in which to deposit the rubber at 5:36 of the first period.

It was 1-0 Isles and now the spotlight turned to Smith in goal.

Associated Press reporter Barry Wilner: "Laying back and trying to preserve a one-goal margin against a nuclear-powered attack like Edmonton's can be suicidal. But the Islanders did it."

Video: Billy Smith was goalie on Islanders' 1980s dynasty

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the hostile crowd witnessed one of the finest virtuoso goaltending performances in National Hockey history. Even now, 36 years after the event, fans, journalist and teammates still marvel over Smitty's masterpiece.

"I've never seen a goalie play as well as he did," said defenseman Ken Morrow, currently the Islanders Director of Pro Scouting. "How Smitty managed to pull a shutout out of that game with all the scoring chances they had. It was one for the ages!"

Still trailing late in the third period, Edmonton appeared to have the tying goal after pulling Moog for an extra skater. 

Kurri, camped in the circle to Smith's right, spotted Gretzky, who was uncovered near the far post. Just as the puck reached Gretzky, Captain Denis Potvin dove back to the post, tipping the puck through Gretzky's legs and out of danger.

Ken Morrow immediately snared the puck and ended the classic with an open net goal with only 12 seconds remaining on the clock.

 In retrospect, one could simply have headlined the final result this way: SMITH 2, OILERS 0.

"It was an extraordinary performance by Smitty," concluded coach Al Arbour. "We hung tough, scratched, clawed and did everything we could to keep it out. When we didn't, Smitty was there."

Playing the game of his lifetime and opening the floodgates to yet another Cup!



1. DAVE LANGEVIN: Airtight defense had to blend with Bill Smith's goaltending. Bammer led the way with endlessly successful shot-blocking.

2. DUANE SUTTER; Always playing a dogged game, Dog startled Edmonton with an early goal -- the eventual winner -- that totally shocked the Oilers and gave the Isles confidence.

3. KEN MORROW: Inevitably steady on the blue line, the ex-U.S. Olympic star once again produced an open-net cushion after helping deflate a last-minute Edmonton rally.

4. BRYAN TROTTIER: Even without his buddy, Bossy, Trots was a two-way giant and completely shut down The Great Gretzky who exited with nothing but a schneid!

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