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Maven's Memories: Islanders Win 15 Straight Games

Stan Fischler examines the Islanders (then) record-setting 15-game win streak in 1982

by Stan Fischler StanFischler /

"We Got A Team That Can't Be Beat" -- Bob Nystrom, 1981-82

Those were fighting words from a player who epitomized the Islanders spirit and confidence.

Nystrom's proclamation was especially relevant in the fall of 1981 as the organization aimed to become the first American team to win three consecutive Stanley Cups.

"We're awesome," chirped Mike Bossy, fresh from a new, lucrative contract and who had become the most dominant offensive force in the game, give or take Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky.

Bossy couldn't know it at the time -- nor could any of his teammates, nor coach Al Arbour -- but their record-breaking quest would eventually fall prey to near-disaster in the following spring.

But before the scare-of-all-scares were to happen, the Islanders to a man were having too much fun. How could it be otherwise when the club immediately secured first place overall in 1981-82 and danced its way to a 54-16-10 record.

Even the supposed "Iffys" came up like roses. Exhibit A was Bill Smith's back-up Roland (Rollie The Goalie) Melanson. Rollie fashioned a 22-7-6 mark while his mentor, Smitty, had a laugher of a campaign at 32-9-4.

"It all looked good on paper," said Arbour, "but we had plenty of challenges along the way to put those big numbers up on the board."

One issue was the less-than-spectacular play of a pair of Radar's favorite stickhandlers. Both Butch Goring and Denis Potvin emerged from the pre-season Canada Cup tourney looking very much as if they were suffering from the build-up-to-a-letdown syndrome.

"I admit it," said Butch, "I'm not playing with the intensity that I should."

Ditto Potvin who suffered the unthinkable ignominy for a perennial All-Star. In a 5-4 loss to Boston, Arbour benched his captain. One reporter noted: "It was the first time Denis was sat down by Al in a close game."

Would a couple of starry slumps brake the Islanders surge? No way; not a chance.

Dispair was as evanescent as smoke rings disappearing in air. For starters, Potvin and Goring got their acts together and the fallout of their regained glitter would produce an entire month -- January 21 through February 20 -- of utter Isles dominance.

The club began winning and winning and winning: 6-1, 6-1, 9-2, 6-3, 4-2, 7-6. 5-2, 6-2, 7-3, 8-2, 8-2, 9-1, and 6-2. 

Those 13 victories put them within one W of tying the 52-year-old record for consecutive wins set by the 1929-30 Boston Bruins, However, the potential record-tying game was in inhospitable Philadelphia.

Denis Potvin: "If we had to pick a place where we didn't want to go to tie the record it would be The Spectrum. Philly was going neck and neck with us for first. They wanted this game as badly as we did."

For a while it looked desperate for the Nassaumen. Philly had the fans in a state of high glee as the home club built a 4-2 lead in the second period. But Bossy and Brent Sutter tied the count before the stanza ended.

John Tonelli then put the troops ahead to stay with a pair in the third: 7-4, Islanders. Fourteen down; one to go. Next stop Fort Neverlose and -- hopefully -- the record-breaker.

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

"We've become a team with a sense of history," said Bill Torrey, the genius in charge of win-making. "We just kept putting together wins. Now it was down to one-more-to-go. What better place than the Coliseum?"

Sure, sure, but there was one conspicuous obstacle; Glenn Resch, former teammate, now with the enemy.

The Isles were hosting Colorado featuring a revenge-seeking Chico between the pipes. "Resch has something to prove," one newsman wrote. "This won't be as easy as it looks."

Nor was it.

Chico's acrobatics through 59 minutes of play had kept the score at 2-2. The potential record was fading faster than Arbour could produce schemes for a goal. Plus -- unlike today -- there was no hope of gaining a win via overtime.

With less than a minute remaining, a collective sense of frustration gripped the 15,271 onlookers. Finally, Radar tried one more gambit. 

Preparing for a face-off, he ordered Bossy, Trottier and Tonelli to the ice -- with a specific play in mind. Sure enough, it unfolded with defenseman Mike McEwen moving the puck to Trots who had Tonelli with him; both digging their skates hard into the chopped ice.

Once at the Rockies' blue line they pulled off a criss-cross after which Bryan sped to the top of the left face-off circle. Then he dropped the rubber for the eager Tonelli.

Ironically, ex-Islanders backliner Bob Lorimer challenged Tonelli by dropping to the ice in an attempted shot-block. All it accomplished was to "screen" Chico. Instantly, John whipped a low, hard one that found an opening between Resch's pads.

The time was 19:13 and among the other ironies was the fact that ex-Rockies defenseman McEwen got the second assist -- Trots had the first -- on Tonelli's record-setting goal. The crowd went nuts while the home bench erupted, mobbing Tonelli. 

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

In the winner's room J.T. took a moment to acknowledge Resch's outstanding effort, adding: "Chico is my friend and always will be my friend. It was tough having to do this to him."

The streak ended the following night in Pittsburgh where the Penguins produced a 4-3 victory, but Islanders dominance was reflected thereafter: 15-0-0; then a 4-3 loss; then 7-0-2 before losing the season finale.

Among the facts that this skyrocketing season revealed was that -- yes, indeed -- there was yet another offensive star along with Bossy, Trottier, Gillies, and Goring. And that was the Locomotive On Skates, John Tonelli.

An 18-year-old who broke in with the WHA's Houston Aeros on a line with Gordie and Mark Howe, J.T arrived in Uniondale as a 20-year-old with limited confidence. It took a while but in time he became as much a clutch scorer as his buddy, Nystrom.

"John Tonelli was terrific in the corners," said historian Andrew Podnieks, "but also a bull in open ice. As he developed confidence he developed into a dominating left wing. He became one of the most important Islanders."

Tonelli: "Getting the record-breaker was one of the nicest feelings I ever had in this game. I loved the challenge; being a part of it although, frankly, we didn't pay much attention to it until we beat Philly, Then we got hungry and this team was unstoppable when it got hungry."

Trottier was another whose goal appetite was sated. Until the 1981-82 season Bryan never had reached the 50-goal mark. With two games remaining on the calendar, the Hall of Fame center had 49. Now in game 79, he did it at the Coliseum against the Flyers.

Once again the genius of Torrey -- Bow Tie Bill had dealt for Mike McEwen -- was evident on a second period power play. Bossy started the rush by skimming a pass to McEwen -- alias "Q-ball" -- who delivered a low snapshot at goalie Pete Peeters.

The save was made but Philadelphia's puck-stopper failed to tame the rebound. Trots feasted on the gift, pushing the rubber between Peeters' legs for Numero 50.

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

Bossy: "I was so happy I got an assist I wanted to be part of his big goal because of all the assists he got for my key goals."

At season's end, the Islanders set a team record with 118 points. Bossy set a record for points by a right wing -- 64-83-147 -- and Clark Gillies' 38 goals was a record for Isles' left wings.

Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz punctuated all the accolades by labelling Radar, "The best coach in the NHL."

No dissenters were heard; only sweet econimums for the mentor of all mentors. But Al also was renowned for his sharp humor which, sometimes, turned against him.The following story, indeed, was part of the revelry.

Partly apocryphal, the anecdote revealed Radar's dedication to his players, but at the expense of his then pregnant wife, Claire.

According to the tale, Al was fast asleep in bed when his expectant wife realized that the maternity ward should be her next destination. Immediately, if not sooner.

Claire gently pushed her hubby who was fast asleep and said, "Al, it's time."

Un-moved, Radar muttered something in his dreams and continued snoring.

Claire realized that this would be a toughie; so she jostled the coach with a bit more emphasis."Al, c'mon; it's time to go to the hospital!"

Beginning to come to his senses -- but not quite there -- a groggy Al replied with his eyes only half-open, "Don't worry about it. A good hard skate and you'll be fine!"

The real Al Arbour was known and appreciated as an annual coach-of-the-year candidate. But he was not one for personal accolades. They were reserved for his team.

Having orchestrated the best regular season mark in the club's history, Radar now had to steer his team past playoff foes determined to prevent the Isles from winning their third straight Cup.

"We're all talented on this team," said Gillies. "Now we have to prove we still have the goods. It's there for the taking."

Since the start of the 1980 post-season the Islanders had devoured eight consecutive playoff foes. They needed to conquer four more and they'd have a third Stanley Cup and be the only American team ever to make that statement!

If Bobby Nystrom was right when he said, the Isles "Can't be beat," they had to overcome the scare of the playoffs.

Stay tuned!

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


1. MIKE MCEWEN: The former Rockies D-man put together impressive numbers on offense. His 49 points placed him second only to Denis Potvin's 61 among blue-liners,.

2. BILLY CARROLL: Listed as "fifth-line center," the Toronto native proved to be one of the NHL's best penalty-killers and back-up PK man, par excellence to Butch Goring.

3. DAVE LANGEVIN: Over 73 hard-hitting games, the bulky defender scored only one goal but his airtight work in the Isles zone was a blessing to goalies Bill Smith and Roland Melanson.

4. ROLLIE MELANSON: Al Arbour was able to limit Smitty's goaltending to 45 regular season games because Rollie The Goalie was so good. Melanson's record was 22-7-6.

5. TOMAS JONSSON: You'd never know that the young Swede was a rookie. Playing like a ten-year vet, Tommy recorded 9-25-34 over 70 games. He was here to stay.

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