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The day the Isles' dynasty almost died

by John Kreiser / New York Islanders

In their four years as Stanley Cup champions, the New York Islanders faced only one game in which their dynasty could have ended with a single loss. Thirty years later, longtime Isles forward Bobby Nystrom and then-Pittsburgh defenseman Randy Carlyle both have vivid memories of April 13, 1982 -- albeit for different reasons.

The Islanders had stormed through the regular season, finishing first in the overall standings and setting an NHL record by winning 15 straight games. The Penguins had finished fourth in the Patrick Division with 75 points, 43 behind New York.

"We were a young hockey club, and that was the first or second year of Eddie Johnston as coach. We were an offensive team and we were really the underdog to go in against the Islanders and that dynasty of a hockey club they had," Carlyle, now the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, told's Neil Acharya.

Bobby Nystrom hoists the Stanley Cup in 1982 -- one of four consecutive championships for the New York Islanders. (Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The Islanders opened the best-of-five series by blowing away the Penguins twice at the Nassau Coliseum. But the Penguins surprised everyone -- even owner Edward DeBartolo, who had offered refunds to fans after the two lopsided losses on Long Island -- by winning the next two games to send the series back to the Nassau Coliseum for a fifth and deciding game.

"I think that was our best team -- we had a good group of guys, and we were kind of cooking," Nystrom said of the 1981-82 team, which led the NHL with 118 points. "It's a funny thing, though -- we always had trouble with Pittsburgh."

Nystrom, who sat out the first four games with a groin injury, returned for Game 5 and opened the scoring midway through the second period. But goals by Kevin McClelland, Mike Bullard and Carlyle before the end of the period sent the Penguins off the ice after two periods with a 3-1 lead -- and 20 minutes away from one of the biggest upsets in Stanley Cup history.

The 3-1 lead held up as the third period began to melt away amid an eerie silence at the Coliseum.

"I remember that I got a penalty [7:31 into the third period] and the guy in the penalty box said to me, 'I can't believe it's over,'" Nystrom recalled. "I said to him, 'It's not over yet.'"

And it wasn't -- thanks to a penalty called against Carlyle, a shrewd coaching move by Al Arbour and a fortunate bounce.

Carlyle went to the box with 7:04 remaining, but the Islanders' power play couldn't beat Michel Dion. After a whistle midway through the penalty, Arbour took advantage of a rule at the time that allowed teams a two-minute warmup for a goaltending change. Billy Smith skated off, youngster Roland Melanson took his place and saw a few shots -- and New York's top power-play unit got its second wind.

"I think that's why they changed that rule -- no warmup," Nystrom said with a laugh.

With the Isles' top power-play unit rested and back on the ice, defenseman Mike McEwen went to the front of the net and popped home a rebound with 5:27 remaining to make it 3-2 -- and revive a dormant sellout crowd of 15,230. The Islanders then tied it just over three minutes later on a play Carlyle would still like to forget.

Gord Lane's harmless-looking dump-in to the left of Dion caromed off the corner boards -- and hopped over the stick of Carlyle, who had gone back to retrieve it. John Tonelli, racing in on the forecheck, picked up the loose puck and, in a single motion, whipped it past Dion to tie the game with 2:21 remaining.

"They just dumped it in and it came off the wall," Carlyle said, "I went back to get it and it bounced over my stick and [Tonelli] put it in the net. That tied the hockey game.

"Oh yeah, I remember it -- people remind you about the things that happen in your career, for sure."

The game went into overtime, and Nystrom nearly had his fifth career OT winner. Instead, he had a close-up view of Tonelli's dynasty-saving goal.

"Johnny Tonelli went into the corner and threw it out to me," Nystrom remembered. "I deked and I was just about to put the puck into the net when Pat Boutette came and pulled me down. I was laying on my back and watched the puck go over me and into the net."

The Coliseum erupted, and the Islanders went on to beat the New York Rangers in six games before sweeping Quebec and Vancouver on the way to the third of their four consecutive Stanley Cup triumphs.

"Any time you're in the last game of a series, it can go either way," Nystrom said. "We got a couple of breaks during the course of the game and we were able to take advantage of them. We were lucky there, and thank goodness for that, because we were able to go on and win the Cup."

While the Islanders celebrated, Carlyle was left to ponder the upset that got away.

"You always feel like you miss when you lose in a playoff series," he said. "When you get it to one game and you are the underdog, you like to be able to seize those opportunities, that's the way sports is and that's what makes it so unique and that's what first-round upsets are all about."

It was another in a string of overtime wins for the NHL's most successful team in extra time -- the Isles' .725 winning percentage (29-11) is by far the best of any club.

"We really did have a sense of confidence that we were going to win the game in overtime," Nystrom said.

Ironically, the roles were reversed 11 years later, with the Penguins trying for a third straight title and the Islanders playing the role of spoiler. This time, the underdog won, with the Arbour-coached Isles beating Pittsburgh 4-3 in overtime in Game 7.

"Al always stressed, 'Let's go at them -- force, force, force. Attack them rather than fall back,'" Nystrom said of Arbour's overtime strategy throughout his time with the Islanders. "He would say, 'The worst thing that can happen is that we lose -- let's not lose sitting back on our heels.'

"We found a way to win, and we were able to go on and win four Cups."

Author: John Kreiser | Columnist

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