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Maven's Memories: Isles-Rangers Epic Playoff Series in 1982

Stan Fischler recalls the Battle of New York in 1982

by Stan Fischler StanFischler /

We Want To Close The Gap On The Islanders -- Herb Brooks

Hero of the 1980 Gold Medal "Miracle On Ice," Herb Brooks signed a Rangers coaching contract on June 1, 1981 and immediately took aim at the Stanley Cup champions.

"The Islanders won two Cups for a reason," said the Olympic hero of Lake Placid. "They do everything right. Part of my job is to lift the Rangers to that level -- and beat them."

More easily said than done.

Brooks had eight regular season games to analyze the Nassaumen during the 1981-82 season The best his team could do was manage two victories while the Isles totaled six. 

But the margin gets wider when you consider that Al Arbour's skaters totaled 35 goals in their six victories plus a stunning extra added attraction -- The Battle of the Heavyweights; Clark Gillies vs. Ed (Boxcar) Hospodar. December 30, 1981, Madison Square Garden.

"For two years," Gillies later explained, "Eddie used to sucker me in front of the net -- or spear me in the back of the neck or crosscheck me in the small of my back. I warned him any number of times that I was gonna get him, but he kept doing stuff. Then, he went too far."

On this fateful night, Gillies was involved in a many- player scrum when Hospodar intervened and grabbed Clark by the jersey. What followed was best summed up by my co-author, Zack Weinstock in our book, Rangers Vs. Islanders:

"Gillies painted the Garden ice with the blood of Rangers tough-but-apparently-not-tough-enough guy, Hospodar."

With three pile-driver punches, Jethro cut The Boxcar for eleven stitches over the eye, broke Ed's cheekbone, knocked out a couple of teeth and broke the Ranger's jaw. 

 Video: Gillies discusses his memories at Nassau Coliseum

Treated for wounds at Lenox Hill Hospital, Hospodar was visited by Daily News reporter Frank Brown. After seeing the wounded Blueshirt, Brown phoned his editor and said, "I just visited a guy who looks something like Eddie Hospodar!"

The Gillies-Hospodar encounter merely fueled the rivalry right up to playoff time. The New York-New York best-of-seven quarter-final opened at the Coliseum on April 15, 1982 in an atmosphere of lit-TNT and assorted other explosives.

During the third period Isles pesky Duane (Dog) Sutter collided with Blueshirts goalie Steve Weeks igniting a major melee. When the dust had cleared all six Rangers on the ice were given 10-minute misconducts as were four Islanders.

This time, the Visitors exited smiling. Rookie defenseman Reijo Ruotsalainen flashed a shot past Bill Smith with 1:58 to go in the third and the Rangers had a 5-4 win.

Revenge was swift and substantial for the Boys From Uniondale. The following night they gave Weeks migraines as they punched out a 7-2 laughter.

Now it was time to bus the parkways and through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel for Game Three, April 18, 1982 at The Garden. In such a highly-contested series, news breaks appeared regularly and this one featured Brooks making a goalie change.

Out went the shell-shocked Weeks and in went Eddie Mio. No surprise, Radar stuck with Bill Smith. "Billy got us this far," Arbour explained. "No need for a change."

Third games such as this one tend to be decisive in terms of determining the eventual series-winner. After the rivals had jousted for three periods tied 3-3, there was a sense that the sudden-death winner also would emerge as the series-winner.

Less than three minutes were required for a decision and who should sadden Brooks but his Gold Medal Team USA defenseman, Ken Morrow, now one of the Isles' best.

Ken accepted a face-off-win pass from Bryan Trottier and took dead aim but his blast was stopped by Mio who couldn't handle the hot potato which caromed toward the right corner. 

Hot or not, Trots retrieved the rubber and delivered a most-unlikely long, spinning bad-angle backhander that surprised just about everybody except the scorekeeper. It was 4-3 Isles, sending Brooks back to his drawing board for yet another doozie of a decision.

This time he chucked both Weeks and Mio and designated John Davidson -- now better known as Blueshirts "President" Davidson -- as his starter between the pipes for Game Four.


Trouble was that injury-prone J.D. had not played in six months.

Overheard in the press box one newsman quipped, "Herbie is using Davidson either for inspiration or desperation. Likely both."

Didn't matter.

Late in the second period J.D. re-injured his leg as Gillies scored and was replaced by Weeks. The home club rallied to tie the count at 3-3 but Dog Sutter had the last bark, sliding the puck under weeks while falling the ice late in the third.

Could magical Herbie pull another goaltender out of his hat? 

Oh, Mio, My-oh, Brooks sent Eddie back to the crease for Game Five and he responded with a highlight career game, stopping 29 of 31 shots while Smitty missed four. 

All of a sudden thoughts about the previous series -- The Penguins scare -- resonated among Islanders fans. 

Everyone knew that the Rangers under Brooks were a vastly improved team over the Blueshirts who had been swept by the Nassaumen a year earlier. And they knew that the current Rangers were markedly better than the Penguins. 

"There was concern," said Bob Bourne. "We wanted to get this over with and move on to the third round."

To do so, the Isles would have to visit The Garden on April 23, 1982, play hard on the puck. get good goaltending and withstand the barbs of the hostile MSG crowd. 

"It's not exactly my favorite place,"asserted Mike Bossy in what had to be the understatement of his young life. "Winning the clincher there would be sweet."

Video: 40 Years of Fischler covering the Islanders

On Friday night, April 23, 1982 the Islanders would play yet another game of their lives. Then again, so did Herb Brooks' skaters. The Even-Steven situation was well reflected in the 3-3 score. Everybody knew it was Anybody's game. 

Bill Smith kept his end of the bargain with what one reporter labelled, "The save of his life!"

Reijo Ruotsalainen captured the puck a dozen feet from Smitty. The shot was hard, true but somehow wound up in the goaltender's mitt. A collective exhale emanated from the Isles' bench. Battlin' Billy had saved them yet again.

With that bonus save, the Islanders swung the pendulum their way. It began with center Wayne Merrick -- yet another underrated Bill Torrey acquisition -- winning a face-off. The former Cleveland Baron sent the rubber back to the point where Dave Langevin nabbed it.

Never known for his sharpshooting, Langevin uncharacteristically unleashed a rare rocket that orbited over Ed Mio's shoulder. It was a true stunner; Dave's second goal of the series while only his third of the season. Un-Real!

Inspired by the home crowd, the Rangers counterattack with precision, sending the Isles into retreat. Their big break looked like it would be a game-tying shot.

Reijo Ruotsalainen took a feed from Robbie Ftorek a dozen feet away from the crease. Logic dictated that there was no way Smitty was going to fish this baby out of the air; but he did -- and so doing fished the air right out of the Rangers bench. 

Just to finally seal the deal, Bob Bourne added an open-netter and that was that.

Another Islanders-Rangers melodrama concluded and another triumph for Al Arbour & Company was in the books.

Two series down, two to go as a third Stanley Cup could be seen beyond the blue horizon!

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