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Maven's Memories: Sabres Buffaloed By Isles in 1980

Stan Fischler recounts the Isles dramatic road wins in Buffalo in the 1980 conference finals

by Stan Fischler StanFischler /

Having vaulted into the third playoff round in their march toward a possible 1980 Stanley Cup, the Islanders faced a perplexing challenge. 

Their Buffalo opponents overflowed with talent and the arithmetic underlined that point.

The Sabres had finished the regular campaign with a second in the NHL with a 47-17-16 record -- right behind the Philadelphia Flyers -- and had allowed the fewest goals in the league.

For offense, the Sabres featured one of the NHL's most intimidating units, The French Connection Line.

Rick Martin, Gil Perreault and Rene Robert had done just about everything but win a Stanley Cup for Western New York fans although they came within one triumph of the title in 1975. What's more, the Sabres entered the tournament with a 22-game home unbeaten streak.

Then there was fabled coach Scotty Bowman, who had left the Montreal Canadiens after winning four consecutive Cups for the Habs, now masterminding the Buffalo sextet. Scotty would go on to become the winningest bench boss in major league hockey annals.

What Bowman did not have was a Denis Potvin.

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

Well recovered from injuries, the Islanders captain had learned from his playoff shortcomings against the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1978 and the New York Rangers a year later. The NHL's best defenseman figured that he could be an effective decoy for the Buffalo forwards.

"I want the Sabres to send two or three guys on me," Denis explained. "Let them try and I guarantee I'll get my pass up ice. Those guys (on Buffalo) who are caught up ice will change their minds and eventually leave me room to help my forwards."

Game One on April 29 at Buffalo's venerable Auditorium (Aud) was not Potvin's finest. Matter of fact, looking backward, some critics considered it the Captain's worst of the playoffs.

No matter. The Islanders knocked off the home club, 4-1, with relative ease. Better-balanced than Buffalo, New York well compensated for Potvin's off-night. John Tonelli potted a pair of goals while Mike Bossy and Bob Bourne got the others.

"Denis understands that we're strong enough to win without him," said the peripatetic Bourne who dazzled with his skate work. "But he also knows how important he is to us and how much easier it is to win with him playing like he can."

Bowman, a master at playing mind games with the opposition, mistakenly chose goalie Bill Smith as a target. Scotty figured he could get his players to un-nerve Smitty. In one dramatic opening game interlude, Smitty engaged in a stick-swinging episode with Rick Martin.

If the Isles now-number one puck-stopper was harried by the harassment, his words said he couldn't have cared less about what machinations Bowman had in mind.

"Scotty doesn't have a hope in hell of upsetting me," Smith emphatically asserted.

Smitty remained in mint condition as Game Two unfolded in Buffalo on May 1, 1980. In fact many signs suggested that he was hellbent for a shutout. "We had everyone going," Potvin remembered. "We were optimistic about making it two wins in a row."

To do so, they needed Smith to play goal as he never had before. With the score still 0-0 Battlin' Bill showed why he was to be re-named "Mister Clutch." In a pair of rapidly-unfolding plays, he stopped Gil Perreault and then made a diving save on Derek Smith at the left post.

Meanwhile, Butch Goring made his arrival on the Isles look more significant than ever.
With the teams still deadlocked in the second period, the newest Islander blasted a shot through goalie Bob Sauve's arms at 15:02 of the middle frame to put the Isles ahead, 1-0.

But the Sabres would not be denied and at 11:47 of the third period Andre Savard cashed in a Smith rebound to tie the count, 1-1. That sent the combatants to the dressing room to prepare for what was to become -- at that point -- the longest game in the franchise's history.

Based on potential scoring chances, either team could have broken the game open in the first sudden death period but both Sauve and Smith were equal to the goaltending task. Now it was a battle of attrition with fatigue becoming a factor. The fresher team figured to win.

"Between overtime periods," said Potvin, "we felt we had an edge going into the second OT. We were better conditioned; but we had to go out and show that it would make a difference."

It was just past midnight when the puck was dropped for the second sudden death; a first for both teams. Coach Arbour dispatched two of his most reliable clutch players to, hopefully, dispatch the Sabres from Game Two,. 

The Clutch Guys, Gillies and Nystrom -- those hard-nosed Western Canadians -- immediately went to work and put a full-ice press on the Sabres defense like you wouldn't believe. Twice the Buffalo backliners tried to relieve the pressure by clearing their defensive zone.

But Gillies said no. On each Sabres attempt, Clark snared the puck the way he would pull trout out of the Saskatchewan River near his hometown of Moose Jaw.

More desperate than ever, Buffalo sharpshooter Richard Martin finally tried a pressure-releasing icing and this, too, failed, while the Isles tightened the noose. 

Now it was Nystrom who applied the pressure by snaring the rubber while skating behind the enemy net. He picked up Goring on his radar and tried to hit him with a pass.

Nystrom: "In the end my missed pass to Butchie turned out to be a good thing but I couldn't have guessed it at the time so I then decided to curl in front of the net just in case someone on our club got the puck and put it on goal. Then, their goalie might give a rebound. 

"After the puck skimmed past Butch, it went to my defenseman Bobby Lorimer
at the point. Bobby let a shot go and it bounced off the right toe of Sauve's skate. I just pushed in the rebound before Sauve could react."

The time was 1:20 of the second overtime. The Islanders had won both games in Buffalo.

Not only was it Nystrom's fourth of the playoffs but the Isles fourth red light in sudden-death during the 1980 playoffs so far.

Furthermore, it marked the 16th time the franchise played an overtime game and the Nassaumen now had won 75 percent of them. What's more they now had won 10 consecutive playoff games from the embattled and disheartened Sabres.

"We really were rolling," Nystrom chuckled. "I couldn't see Buffalo coming back."

Visions of reaching the final round for the first time danced in the Islanders heads. Two more wins would catapult them that much closer to the Cup.

As it happened, getting there would not be as easy as Ny's words made them seem to be at the time. Alas, the road to Philadelphia was pockmarked with potholes!

Still, to the eyes of the Islanders that Cup beyond the blue horizon was looking more glistening -- ah, more tantalizing -- than ever!

Hey, they almost could taste the champagne!


1. LIMITING MIKE BOSSY: Although the Hall of Fame right wing had excelled in the final two games of the Boston series, Radar significantly limited Mike's ice time against the Sabres; to good advantage, at that!

2. MOVING NYSTROM TO THE TOP LINE: Determined to frustrate Buffalo's ace sniper, Rick Martin, Arbour played Ny in Bossy's slot. The plan worked; overall Martin was limited to no goals and three assists.

3. STAYING WITH SMITTY: With Battlin' Billy at the top of his game -- not only stopping pucks but harassing the Sabres -- Arbour kept Chico Resch in reserve for the duration. Smith made his coach look good, as Bill usually did.

4. LORIMER COMES OF AGE: A Michigan Tech graduate, Bob Lorimer reminded Radar of the way Al played defense in the NHL --unobtrusively and without any fuss or fanfare; just rock-solid. Which explains why Arbour used more of Bob than ever -- and won with him.

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