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Maven's Memories: Bossy vs Gretzky, Trottier vs Messier, Potvin vs Coffey

Stan Fischler examines the rivarly between legendary Islanders and Oilers superstars

by Stan Fischler StanFischler /

Who's better?

Those two little words express one of the most compelling off-ice debating questions among fans.

The "Who's Better?" issue dramatically crystalized during the 1980-81 NHL season when the Islanders were defending Stanley Cup champions and Edmonton's Oilers were challengers on the rise.

New York's newest rival was based in Alberta and coached by Glen (Slats) Sather. His star-studded club had emerged from the defunct World Hockey Association to become an almost instant National Hockey League powerhouse.

Immediately, a "Who's Better?" question became automatic. All one had to do was check out the future Hall of Famers -- and their respective foes on each side.

Forwards Mike Bossy vs. Wayne Gretzky; Bryan Trottier vs. Mark Messier and defensemen Denis Potvin vs. Paul Coffey.

When it came to the issue of pure scoring ability, the spotlight centered on the most prominent super-shooters, Bossy and Gretzky.

Also well-featured on the marquee were the two most discussed power forward centers -- Trottier and Messier.

Already a three-time Norris Trophy-winner as the league's best defenseman, Potvin now was being closely challenged by the speedy Coffey. To reach this point of combat, each performer trod a different route.

Video: Mike Bossy had record nine straight 50-goal seasons

Bossy and Gretzky entered the pro ranks on near parallel tracks. Mike signed on with the Islanders in 1977 and by 1978 had won the Calder Memorial Trophy as NHL's top rookie. 

Gretzky turned pro in 1978 with the World Hockey Association's Edmonton Oilers. He moved on to the NHL a year later when Edmonton, Hartford, Quebec City and Winnipeg were absorbed into the senior league.

Bossy: "Wayne was a skinny 19-year-old who made the bigger guys look foolish. He was obviously talented. He had to be in order to tie Marcel Dionne for the (1980-81) scoring title; and in his rookie NHL season, no less."

By that time Bossy had come off four full seasons of having scored goals -- in this order, 53, 69, 51, 68 -- ably abetted by his robust center, Trottier.

Meanwhile, Messier had followed Gretzky from the WHA into the NHL. In complete contrast to The Great One, Mark looked like a bull and played like a bull. Reporters, in turn, were bullish about his future.

"One thing about Mark," said Trottier, "he played the game as tough as anyone."

Then again, so did Trots. 

Video: Bryan Trottier was mainstay on six Cup-winning teams

On the ice, New York had the advantage over Edmonton during the regular 1980-81 season. The teams met four times; New York won a pair and tied the other two. This was a compelling prelude to their post-season clashes.

"Edmonton played us in the second round right after knocking the Canadiens out in three straight," noted Al Arbour. "They outscored them, 15-6. We knew we'd have our hands full."

Sizzling in the homestretch, the Oilers had lost only once in its last 15 (10-1-4) games. While their playoff sweep of Montreal was impressive, it was well-matched by the Islanders opening round rout of the Maple Leafs, 9-2, 5-1, 6-1.

That set the stage for the New York-Edmonton quarter-final that felt like a Final Round battle for the Cup - the Oilers youth and speed against the more experienced reigning champs.

"We're not going to play them wide open," said Potvin. "We can't let them skate and handle the puck. That's what they like to do. You're not supposed to enjoy the playoffs. It's supposed to be work. We want to make them work."

Video: Denis Potvin was captain of Islanders' 1980s dynasty

So, they did. Potvin and Company bombed the Visitors, 8-2, in the opener at the Coliseum. Even the media was impressed with the Champs, especially Canadian author Peter Gzowski who was writing a book about Edmonton.

"The Oilers are not comfortable with the idea of playing them," Gzowski observed.

Gretzky was less diplomatic and, in fact, annoyed Nassau fans when he called the Canadiens - not the Isles - "The greatest team in hockey." For motivational purposes, Arbour tacked that comment on his club's bulletin board.

Radar's move didn't hurt since the Isles captured Game Two in Uniondale, 6-3, and successfully contained Gretzky. "We used a zone," Potvin explained.

"We knew that if we gave him enough time and targets, he'd blow our doors off. We concentrated on covering his wings and getting to him quickly to get him off the puck."

The plan backfired in Game Three -- at Northlands Coliseum -- with a 5-3 Oilers victory but the Isles rebounded in the fourth match which went into overtime tied, 4-4. 

A sudden-death hero in the 1980 playoffs, defenseman Ken Morrow potted the winner again; this time beating Andy Moog at 5:41 of the first O.T. "My shot must have had eyes," Ken explained.

But the fourth win - the potential clincher - would have to wait. Sather's sextet held on for a 4-3 edge in Game Five at Uniondale, sending the series back to Alberta once more. This time, there was no time for comedy; Radar saw to that.

Individually and collectively, Trottier, Bossy, and Potvin led the Nassaumen to a rousing 5-2 victory and series clincher.

"We beat them soundly," Bossy concluded, "but give Edmonton credit, we definitely felt challenged in this series."

Looking backward, The Edmonton-Nassau fracas had clearcut decisions up and down the line; Trots over Mess, Potvin topping Coffey while Bossy overwhelmed The Great One! 

In answer to The Question - Who's Better? - this time it was Islanders all the way!


1. GOALTENDING: Bill Smith did his usual yeoman work and even back-up Rollie Melanson won in his pinch-hitting role. Edmonton's Andy Moog was not in the same starry class.

2. STRATEGY: Bryan Trottier was able to sufficiently suffocate Wayne Gretzky along with the Denis Potvin-led defense.

3. EXPERIENCE: As defending Cup champs, the Isles knew the playoff ropes; the Oilers still were learning.

4. THE GREAT DENIS: Whether it was quarterbacking the power play or backing into his own zone to break up plays, Potvin never was better, totally out-classing his opposite, Paul Coffey.

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