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Maven's Memories: The Big (Penguins) Scare of 1982

Stan Fischler recalls a tense moment in the Islanders pursuit to their third Stanley Cup

by Stan Fischler StanFischler /

"This is a one-game series and we can beat them in one game" -- Penguins goalie Michel Dion who nearly ruined the Isles Cup bid.

"It was the most exciting game I ever played in" -- Bob Nystrom

Hollywood would have billboarded it as THE BIG SCARE OF 1982.

Islanders beat reporters such as Newsday's Tim Moriarty said it in a Long Island kind of way: "They nearly blew it."

Looking backward at the 1982 opening playoff round, I remember how the Penguins almost demolished the Islanders pursuit of a third Stanley Cup. The fateful game took place in Uniondale on April 13, 1982. The upset was this close to happening. 

"What are we going to say after the game if we lose?" Mike Bossy admitted muttering to himself as defeat loomed ahead.

Video: 1981-82 Isles sweep Canucks to win third straight Cup

But first a bit of background on what led to the near-disaster at For Neverlose.

With a league-leading 118 points (54-16-10), the Islanders would launch their Cup crusade against a Pittsburgh club that couldn't even reach the .500 mark.

The Penguins went 31-36-13 over the regular season; good for 75 points. That placed them in the National Hockey League's subterranean depths; 43 points behind the Nassaumen.

When the Preliminary Round series began on April 7, 1982 at the Coliseum. virtually all hands predicted a swift sweep for New York thereby catapulting the Isles on to the Quarter-Final Round.

As expected, Al (Radar) Arbour's skaters not only held serve, they shredded the Visitors, 8-1 and 7-2; or 15-3, if you will over the first pair of games.,

If the underdogs were daunted, it wasn't evident back in Steel City. Pitt rebounded 2-1 in overtime and then undercut the Isles, 5-2, behind the enormous goaltending of Michel Dion.

So, it all came down to Game Five and a vexing question tossed to reporters by the peripatetic Dion: "Who has the edge -- the team that won the first two or the one that won the last two?"

For two periods-plus, Dion ensured that his club had the advantage. Although they were being outshot by a two-to-one margin, the Penguins led 3-1 while Magnificent Michel seemed impregnable.

"By all rights, we should have been up by five goals," said General Manager Bill Torrey. "But we hung in there. We never panicked, never lost our composure."

Really? Bow Tie Bill's words were hard to diges with only six minutes remaining and Dion still nursing the two-goal lead.

Video: Thank You Stan Fischler

Finally, a break. The Visitors took a penalty and Dion gave up a rebound that was cashed by Torrey's excellent catch from Colorado, Mike McEwen. Now it was 3-2, Penguins. while the clock steadfastly ticked against the defending Champs.

There was less than two-and-a-half minutes remaining when Isles defender Gord Lane fired the puck into the Penguins zone. Normally it would easily have been handled by defenseman Randy Carlyle.

But it was late in the contest and the ice was snowy. Somehow the puck flipped over Carlyle's stick, special delivery to John Tonelli who stunned Dion with a quick flip and -- WHEW! -- it was 3-3, somersaulting the game into overtime.

Rangers coach Herb Brooks sat in the press box scouting the game. His club had beaten the Flyers and would play the Pitt-Isles winner. Associated Press hockey reporter Barry Wilner asked Brooks his view of the OT. 

"He said two words," Wilner remembered: "'Tonelli. Nystrom.'"

A pair of good choices since Ny and J.T. epitomized the Islanders dauntless spirit.

"We knew we still had our work cut out for us," said Tonelli.

Especially Bill Smith.

With only a minute-and-a-half gone in the first sudden-death period, Rick Kehoe and Mike Bulland -- Pittsburgh's sharpest shooters -- galloped free on a two-on-one break.

Kehoe's pass was on tape and Bullard's shot was on goal. To the 15,230 fans it looked like the killer drive had found a very big opening. Desperately, Smitty flung himself through the air, thrusting the rubber out of harm's way.

Now it was the Islanders move. The decisive play originated with Bob Bourne who zipped the puck to Tonelli. Entering the Penguins zone, J.T. was checked by Pitt defender Paul Baxter. The puck caromed into the corner, otherwise known to Islanders fans as "Tonelli-Land."

J.T. retrieved the puck and skimmed it to Nystrom, just outside Dion's crease. Ny tried a fake but Dion wasn't biting -- but he did allow a rebound and left himself in a delicate position.

Tonelli: "The puck was just lying there and nobody else saw it. Dion was down and I had the whole net to shoot at; how could I miss?"

Bullseye! At 6:19 of overtime.

Game over. Series over. The traditional handshaking line fell into place while the capacity crowd cheered itself hoarse. The Visitors valiant goaltending could only choke back tears.

"We thought we had them," Dion concluded after shaking hands with Smith. "We played our hearts out, but those Islanders wouldn't quit. They have the heart of a lion."

Ditto for Dion who had the game of his life.

Exhausted to a man, perspiration doing a Niagara down the Islanders jerseys, the winners finally galumphed to their dressing room. There they hugged each other and paid tribute to Dion -- as well as the game itself.

"Those last six minutes was just fantastic hockey," concluded Nystrom. "It was the best our team could play under pressure. It was the most exciting game I ever played in!"

Fair enough, but the revenge-seeking Broadway Blueshirts were up next and Nystrom might have to amend his list of "Most Exciting Games" after the next tourney!


1. HAVING THE ISLANDERS NUMBER: In Game 80 Pittsburgh beat the Islanders, 7-2, to end the regular season. That one-sided triumph filled the Penguins with confidence.

2. PLAYING WITH HOUSE MONEY: Since everyone expected the Penguins to be swept, they played the series with a loose-goosey attitude while the Isles were under intense pressure to make it three Cups in a row.

3. THE INDOMITABLE DION: A dependable goalie -- first in the World Hockey Association -- Michel Dion reached his goaltending apex in the final three games of the series.

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