by Mike Milbury
As I recall it, the one characteristic that marked the Islanders' 1980 Stanley Cup team above all else was its passion. The intensity demonstrated by that team put it a cut above the rest. I know. I played against them.
As a member of the 79-80 Boston Bruins, I remember we were coming off an okay year. One hundred and five points qualifies as at least that, right? But we had our issues. Fred Creighton had replaced Don Cherry as our head coach which, given Don's popularity with the team, was a difficult situation at best. Despite our strong run late in the season, our GM, Harry Sinden, sensed the unrest that existed in the room and stepped behind the bench himself. We finished the season with a charge by winning six of seven games after the change and dismissed the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs.
On the Island, Bill Torrey had executed the trade for Butch Goring on March the 10th and the team did not lose a game for the remainder of the season, finishing with 91 points. But, proving that it is never easy, the Islanders had a battle but got by the LA Kings in their first round on Ken Morrow's goal in overtime in the deciding game of the series. That set them up with a date in Boston.
There was no reason to be overly concerned from our vantage point in Boston. Since my first full season in 76-77, we had averaged 106 points per year. Entering this playoff series, we had reached the Stanley Cup finals twice and lost in the seventh game of the semi-finals in overtime in the previous three seasons. Only Montreal had checked our aspirations to win a Cup. And just barely at that.
The series opened in Boston with Gerry Cheevers guarding the goal. Creaky knees and all, Gerry was a tremendous competitor in pressure situations. We had no shortage of toughness with guys like Cashman, O'Reilly, Secord and Stan Jonathan and, while we never really talked about it, we knew that that approach worked well in the bandbox that was the old Boston Garden. There was nowhere to hide in the rink that was far smaller than most ice surfaces in the NHL.
What we didn't know was that our upcoming opponent was well-prepared to meet the physical challenge.
Of course, I didn't know this until much later but the Islanders were spending the evening getting ready. You have to understand that you just don't get ready to play in places like Philadelphia and Boston in that era. You had to be prepared to be hit and bruised and punched if you wanted to win.
Somewhere in a Boston hotel room, Bob Nystrom was doing just that. Over a soft drink and cookies...yeah, right...Nystrom was meeting with Clark Gillies. "I'll take on Wensink, you get O'Reilly. We get through that stuff and we'll beat 'em." Factor this when you consider that conversation: John Wensink was once suspended for a brawl in which he rendered an opponent unconscious and as he told it to me, almost blinded the guy. "Mike," John once confided, "I had my finger dug behind his eyeball and I thought about about pulling it out but I stopped myself." Now there's a man of conscience.
And Terry O'Reilly? Terry was my roommate on the road and his idea of post-game fun was to head back to the room to do sit-ups and push-ups. Seriously!! He once turned the All-Star game into a near brawl by breaking the unwritten rule that there was to be no hitting in the game. A game with no hitting did not exist with O'Reilly in it. And I think Terry had as many brawls driving to the rink as he did on the ice. Proud and defiant, the man had no fear. The point is, if Clark had the feeling that Ny was a little psycho, who could blame him?
Game One went to the Islanders in overtime. Gillies got the winner and the Islanders got their confidence. There was action in the physical department but nothing compared to game Two. We had not played well and we were not happy campers as we took to the ice. We had taken them for granted, paid a price and we wanted payback. Harry Sinden inserted Wensink into the lineup as f to make a statement. John and Bob Nystrom got together about twenty seconds after the opening faceoff to set the tone. The first period saw some action as Gillies and O'Reilly squared off in a short bout but that was nothing compared to what happened next.
Near the end of period, Butch Goring had picked off a pass of mine as I attempted to spring a teammate. Fortunately, the Islanders were just offside preventing a great scoring chance from occurring. But I was ticked at myself and wanted to do something "positive." As the horn sounded to end the first period, the puck wound up in the corner next to the Boston goal. Duane Sutter and I reached it as time expired and I decided it was time.
I pushed Duane against the glass and we had at it for a while. In the meantime, Wayne Merrick meandered into the area of the fight, which is a no-no as it invites a gathering. Before long, the party started. It was one of the wildest scenes I have ever experienced. Goalies grappling with one another, people sucker-punching people and in what was the statement of the evening, a classic battle between Garry Howatt, the Islanders' tough guy and Wayne Cashman, the Bruins' aging warrior. Howatt got a look at Bob Lorimer's facial gash courtesy of an unannounced Secord left and went looking for someone, anyone to answer for it. He found Cashman.
Howatt, looking a little crazed, ripped a cheap shot at Cashman...why not? Secord had initiated this. Cashman reeled a little and then charged back and did more than even the score. Penalty records were set, eight players were ejected and then the Islanders went on to win in overtime on Bob Bourne's goal.
The Islanders came home knowing they had met the physical challenge posed by the Bruins. Game three went to New York handily, but we did not go gently into the night in Game Four. Terry O'Reilly, battered by Clark Gillies, managed to tape up his hands, knuckles sliced to the bone in his tussles, and slip home an overtime winner.
The Islanders took care of business in Game Five. They were the better team. Bossy and Trottier and Potvin and Tonelli and Goring and Bourne and on and on. We were no slouches...three of the five games went to overtime. But, in order to win it, in order to make their mark, they not only had to face a tough Bruins lineup, they had to face themselves. How badly did they want it?
Now we know.
Years after this series, I met Bryan Trottier at a players' meeting. He told me that once his club got past us, they knew they could win it all. For a fleeting moment, that gave me solace.
As the championships rolled up, they met every other challenge. Multi-dimensional and filled with character, they deserved their dynasty. The 1979-80 Islanders deserve the night that awaits them at the Coliseum on March 4.