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Maven's Memories: Isles Win First Stanley Cup in 1980

Stan Fischler looks back at the 1980 Stanley Cup Final

by Stan Fischler StanFischler /

It was spring 1980 and the Islanders trail to the club's first Stanley Cup had reached its last mile; the final round.

Having successively disposed of Los Angeles, Boston and Buffalo, coach Al Arbour's rampaging sextet was now being blockaded by a formidable foe -- the regular season champion Philadelphia Flyers. 

Apart from the fact that the Broad Streeters had set an NHL record by going 35 games without a loss, the Flyers roster was sprinkled with sharpshooters such as Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber and Rick MacLeish. They had helped win Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975.

Scary? Sure, but that just made the Islanders smile. "We play even better when we're scared," chuckled Butch Goring.

The Final Round opened at The Spectrum on May 13, 1980 with a see-saw match that wound up tied, 3-3 after regulation time. Sudden-death overtime loomed ahead and the Nassaumen still were smiling.

So far in the playoffs, Goring & Company had gone four wins for five attempts in the extra sessions. It wouldn't be like a walk in Eisenhower Park, but it certainly was no time for panic.

"We went into the dressing room feeling exactly the same as we had in all those other overtime games," said captain Denis Potvin. "We were confident, ready, scared -- but not paralyzed by fear."

Video: 1980: Bob Nystrom's OT goal wins Islanders first Cup

If anyone was paralyzed by anything it was Jim Watson on only the second shift of overtime. The Flyers defenseman grabbed John Tonelli and threw him to the ice. Watson took a two-minute penalty for his indiscretion, giving the visitors a man advantage.

For most of the power play, the Isles were on a treadmill to oblivion until the magnificent defenseman, Ken Morrow, launched a promising thrust by skimming the puck into the left corner where Bob Nystrom quickly slid it behind the net to Tonelli. 

Johnny On The Spot detected Potvin skating at the edge of the right face-off circle and delivered a juicy pass. With just one second left on the power play Denis placed the puck to the far side of goalie Pete Peeters and the Isles were up one game, 4-3.

Nobody figured the first-place Flyers for patsies and in Game Two they underlined that point by spanking the Isles, 8-3 with Chico Resch coming in for relief of Bill Smith. Yet the Nassaumen seemed nonplussed by the five-goal separation.

"Nobody sensed trouble." Mike Bossy insisted, "We knew it would be a long series. Losing didn't matter since we were going home for the next two games."

Knowing that the Cup was a mere three wins away, Islanders fans entered the Coliseum in a state of high glee and anticipation for Game Three on May 17. Any tension was lifted by the end of the first period after goals by Lorne Henning, Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier and Bossy.

It was 6-0 at the end of two periods and concluded with a 6-2 decision. Two down, two to go.
Things were looking up even in the physical department where the Flyers were supposed to have an edge. This was evident when Clark Gillies sent Flyers large defender Behn Wilson "hiding behind a linesman" during a confrontation.

Arbour made sure that his club maintained the momentum in Game Five at Uniondale on May 19 although the Flyers made it interesting by trailing 2-1 heading for the decisive third period. 

The between-periods interlude in the Islanders dressing room was compelling to say the least. Although he no longer was captain, Gillies mounted a makeshift podium and addressed the troops.

"We've never been in this position before," Jethro asserted, "and God knows when we will again. If we let it slip away, it will be a big, big mistake."

Video: Isles' 1980s dynasty produced four consecutive Cups

Each team had traded a goal by the twelve minute mark of the third frame. But Mister Clutch, Bobby Ny, beat Peeters at 12:35 after which Preacher Gillies added one for good measure and, suddenly it had become three games to one for the Arbour-men. 

Meanwhile, the Coliseum almost came unhinged as the overflow crowd chanted: WE WANT THE CUP! WE WANT THE CUP! WE WANT THE CUP!

Trottier appreciated the support but -- a la Gillies -- threw caution to the room. "We gotta keep two feet on the ground. We can't start thinking about what could be."

Trots was mimicking the thoughts of his boss, Bow Tie Bill Torrey when someone asked the g.m. if his 1979 Rangers hangover had ended. "I'll get over it," the mastermind shot back, "when we win one more hockey game."

It wasn't to be in Game Six at the Spectrum. Although defenseman Stefan Persson -- an underrated hero throughout -- gave New York a 1-0 lead at the end of the first period, Philly fiercely counterattacked before the home fans and skated off with a 6-3 decision. 

Now the pressure shifted to the Islanders to win Game Six on May 24th in Uniondale.  

"We didn't want to go back to Philadelphia," said Bossy. "We wanted to win it at home. When we walked into the locker room that morning (it was a day game) we were saying to ourselves, 'We'd better do it this time.'"

The sunny Saturday morning magnetically drew more than ticket-holders to the Coliseum. Tail-gaters filled the vast parking area; many hoping to tell their heroes, face-to-face, how much they wanted a victory.

One reporter observed, "The event has the atmosphere of a Hollywood premiere with spectators jockeying for a glimpse of players as they headed into the arena."

The game started ominously for the Isles. Bullet-shooting Reg Leach beat Bill Smith at 7:21 of the first period but Denis Potvin evened the score less than five minutes later.

 Then, Arbour's crew enjoyed a rare break when veteran linesman Leon Stickle got confused --"Maybe I was too close to the play," Stickled later explained -- and failed to whistle down an Islanders offside.

Video: 1979-80 Isles become second expansion team to win Cup

Meanwhile, Butch Goring skimmed a pass to Duane Sutter who beat Peeters to move the home club ahead 2-1. But once again the Flyers rebounded on a late Brian Propp tally and the first frame ended 2-2.,

The Coliseum roar was restored at 7:34 of the middle stanza when Bossy converted passes from Trottier and Bourne. It was 3-2 for the home side but the fans clamored for just one more; they wanted a two-goal cushion heading into the third period.

Sure enough, with just fourteen seconds left, Tonelli distributed a luscious pass to Nystrom who converted and set off a massive exhale throughout the packed arena  

For Cup-thirsty fans, the two-goal lead seemed like twenty. As they rushed to the refreshment stands, their talk was so coated with optimism that a visiting reporter remarked to a friend that the fans were acting as if the Cup already had been won. Ditto for Arbour's crew.

"We were so high after that period, we already were congratulating each other," said Nystrom. "We forgot there were another twenty minutes to play."

Arbour: "We started shuffling around and then running around when the third period began. We wanted it to end so quickly and we were hesitant. We wanted to get it over with."

Alas; the optimism that had so energized the arena turned to concern before the two-minute mark had been reached in the third period. Big Flyers defenseman Bob Dailey beat Smith on a flukey deflection at 1:47 Within five minutes, concern turned to abject despair. 

The lead so rousingly toasted between periods had been blown. Worse still, an almost-forgotten fourth-liner, John Paddock, tipped a screened shot past Smith and it was a new ball game all over again, deadlocked at 4-4.

Smith: "They were freaky goals."

Bossy: "When they tied it I was scared to death."

Bourne: "We were all exhausted but emotion kept us going."

The 14,995 in attendance shuddered as the suddenly confident Flyers poured volley after volley at Smith but the doughty goaltender once again proved formidable and flawless. While his mates fought simply to regain traction, Battlin' Bill preserved the tie through regulation.

Given an intermission reprieve, the Islanders preached confidence. "We have always owned overtime," defenseman Dave Langevin insisted. 

Other Islanders chimed in simply to relieve the tension while looking to the sudden-death period ahead.

"I was thinking that I would really like to be the hero," said Nystrom who already had three previous overtime playoff goals to his credit.

Video: 1980 Cup Final, Gm 6: Nystrom leads Isles to 1st Cup

Yet from the first sudden-death face-off the Flyers stormed the barricades once more, First a Bobby Clarke thrust barely missed ending the fray. Then Ken Linseman almost had Smitty beaten but defenseman Bob Lorimer swept the rubber to safety.

Arbour kept his shifts short to provide breathing room. He also had to make adjustments up front. When Banana Line center Wayne Merrick went down with a charley horse, Radar asked utility pivot Lorne Henning to fill the gap.

An Original Islander from the "Hapless" 1972-72 squad, Henning had been in only 39 regular season games and wouldn't have been playing in this one but for an injury to Anders Kallur. 

Now it was Henning pivoting along with Nystrom and Tonelli when it happened.

Innoculously skating at center ice, Henning noticed Tonelli streaking along the right lane -- although John was a left wing -- and Lorne dished John the biscuit. Flyers defenseman Moose Dupont guarded Tonelli, one-on-one, awaiting the Islander's next move.

"I saw that Ny was breaking to the net along the left side," Tonelli recalled. "What I tried to do was shovel the puck to him right away."

Nystrom, who had been taking "Power Skating" lessons, outraced Flyers defender Bob Dailey just enough to find room for Tonelli's pass. From the Islanders bench, some players worried that Ny had sped into an awkward position to release a shot.

On the one hand it didn't appear to be a pass Ny could one-time, nor did it look as if he could backhand it as well. What Bobby did do was make the best of what was there for him.

"I ticked it with my backhand as Peeters was going down," concluded Ny, "and it floated over him."

It also concluded the Flyers.


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