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Maven's Memories: The Drive for Five Ends in Edmonton

Stan Fischler looks back at the 1984 Stanley Cup Final in Edmonton

by Stan Fischler StanFischler /

  We hurt mentally and physically all playoff long -- Mike Bossy, Spring 1984.

If there was a major obstacle that would prevent the Islanders from succeeding in their Drive For Five -- Stanley Cups, that is -- it was injuries.

And as the 1984 second round series against the Washington Capitals unfolded, the wounds began multiplying. 

One by one, they went down: first Bob Bourne with a separated shoulder; ditto for John Tonelli; then Brent Sutter and Dave Langevin.

How the defending Champs recovered after losing Game One to Washington and then rebounded to annex four straight victories was yet another testimony to their perseverance, grim determination and tenacity.

Washington captured the opener 4-2 and then, one, two, three four -- just like that -- the Nassaumen pushed the Capitals aside to make way for the Montreal Canadiens in Round Three.

"The Habs wanted no part of the Islanders tying their record of five straight Cups," was the way one reporter put it. "They wanted to preserve their sole place in history."

Bossy: "It was fate that decided we couldn't win five straight Cups without eliminating the Canadiens who were determined to protect the honor of their 1956-60 brethren."

Sure enough, the Habs jumped into a two game lead -- 3-0, 4-2 -- while rookie goaltender Steve Penney performed like a Vezina Trophy-winner who boarded up his net.

"The Canadiens got a Penney from heaven," quipped columnist Joe Gergen in Newsday.

Staggering but not TKO'd, the Islanders dug deep into their roster and rebounded like mad. Bill Smith allowed only five goals in the next four games and Bossy scored the game-winner three times. 

Following the 4-1 series-clincher, the Coliseum crowd strained the Decibel Count with chants of "WE WANT GRETZKY." It was loud enough for The Great One to hear in distant Edmonton.

Meanwhile, the injuries mounted. Pat LaFontaine, Bob Nystrom, Stefan Persson and Bob Bourne went down in the third round. With a smashed up knee, Bourne was told that he was gone for the duration of the playoffs.

"It was incredible," said Bossy. "It's a wonder we ever made it to the Final."

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

Yet here they were with a record that never-ever will be broken -- 19 consecutive playoff series victories. The most the 1956-60 Habs ever managed was 10 straight en route to their five Cups in a row. Now the power-packed revenge-minded Oilers awaited them.

"We were building up for the Islanders," said Edmonton's crack defenseman Kevin Lowe. "Now we were there. We felt we had to do it this time."

So did the Islanders.

Arithmetically, the Nassaumen had Edmonton's number. They had beaten the Oilers in 10 consecutive games. Since Glen Sather's club had entered the NHL, it had won only three games from the Isles. Why should Al Arbour worry?

Mike Bossy had the answer: "What worried me is that we haven't lost to the Oilers. They're too good a team for that to continue."

Truer words were never spoken.

Game One in Uniondale was as evenly-matched as could be, the difference being that Edmonton's goaltender Grant Fuhr played the game of his life and Bill Smith almost did.

Fuhr made every save while Smitty allowed a sharply-angled shot by Oilers' third-string forward Kevin McClellan to slide past him, hit the inside of the right post and put the Visitors ahead, 1-0; which also happened to be the final score.

To say the least, it was a stunner for the home fans, particularly since the Locals threw everything at Fuhr but the team bench. What's more, all the Visitors big guns -- especially Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Jarri Kurri -- we thoroughly stifled.

Radar's skaters rallied nobly in Game Two, also at the Coliseum. Paced by Clark Gillies' hat trick, the defending champions romped, 6-1. Now, the series moved to Edmonton -- but with a great, big asterix attached to the tourney calendar.

Starting in 1939 and continuing through the 1983 Final, the NHL had designated a structure whereby the series would be divided in a 2-2-1-1-1 format. 

The potential last trio of games alternated back and forth from city to city. But not this time. Osntensibly to save on New York-Edmonton flight costs, the NHL changed the format with an unprecedented move.

Instead of two games in Edmonton and then Game Five back on Long Island, NHL President John Ziegler announced that Games Three, Four and Five would be played at the Oilers home rink. 

There were no protests from the Islanders. What was done was done and they prepared for Game Three as they always did except for the infirmary list still headed by Bob Bourne whose plea with Al Arbour to let him dress for the game was rejected.

Nevertheless, Radar's club looked coming out of the gate. The Visitors took a 2-1 lead into the second period and were playing like champs. "At this point," Kevin Lowe remembered, "the Islanders had a good grip on the game."

And so they did. "I figured the if we won one game in Edmonton, we'd finish them off at home," said Bossy.

But as so often happens in a championship series, just one play could turn a playoff upside-down. In this case, down went the Islanders and up went Mark Messier; up the ice heading for the enemy defense.

Already a superstar and regarded as one of major league hockey's all-time power forwards, Messier chugged down left wing like a runaway locomotive. If Mess was to be stopped, one Islanders defenseman was in the right place at the right time to do it.

But young Kevin Dineen was not up to the challenge. Dineen allowed Messier to blow by him with consummate ease. Then, almost simultaneously Mess blstred the puck past Smith. "From that point on," Lowe concluded, "we never looked back."

Nor did they. A pair of late Oilers goals in the second period sealed the deal and the 7-2 victory thrust Edmonton ahead to stay.

Bossy: "We were worn out, tired, hurt and discouraged. The Oilers were gaining confidence with every shift."

They wrapped up the Final at Northlands Coliseum in the controversial fifth game ending the Islanders dynasty.

Lowe: "A year earlier we had been the vanquished, shaking hands with the victors. This time it was reversed. I'll never forget the emotion in the faces of the Sutter Brothers, Duane and Brent. Both were crying."

"Denis Potvin was like a soldier, like a general of an army in battle, admitting defeat in his intelligent, straightforward way. I could see that in his face. Clark Gillies' face told me, 'It's been a great career for me and we've had our day."

That's for certain. 

The Islanders returned home the only American NHL team ever to win four consecutive Stanley Cups. And 19 consecutive playoff series victories.

Both records never will be broken! As for the failed Drive For Five, Bill Torrey noted: "If we had been one-hundred percent healthy....." Then, a pause without finishing the thought.

With a front page story, the Edmonton Journal hailed the Islanders effort; not just against the Oilers but over a five-year period of domination.

"Although born on Long Island, the Islanders made themselves a household name in Canada, rising to the top of the NHL and dispatching many Canadian teams in the process."

Bossy: "We had a great hockey team that had a great run. I knew it wouldn't last forever. We all did."

And so, the curtain descended on Bill Torrey's dynastic unit. Now Bow Tie Bill had a challenge before him; rebuild the former champions!


GRETZKY UNLEASHED: Hog-tied by Bryan Trottier at the start of the series, The Great One finally cut the shackles that bound him and gave Edmonton the added ammunition that was missing.

MARK HITS THE MARK: Messier's game-tying goal in the second period of Game Three gave the home club the confidence they had previously lacked. "From that goal on," said Kevin Lowe, "we never looked back."

INJURIES: Counting the five years of reaching the finals -- it felt like an extra five seasons -- the Islanders were just plain worn out. By the fourth round, the Nassaumen had become a team of skating wounded. Attrition was as formidable a foe as the Oilers.

COCKEYED PLAYOFF SCHEDULE: Having Games Three, Four and Five pegged for Edmonton was just plain unfair to the Islanders. It was a league mistake, underlined by the fact that such a format never was to be repeated.

BETTER TEAM WON: "They didn't steal anything from us," said Bossy. "They beat us fair and square."

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