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1975 Islanders set standards for comebacks

by John Kreiser
Two teams have come back from 3-0 deficits to win a Stanley Cup Playoff series. Four others -- including this year's Philadelphia Flyers -- have rallied to force Game 7 after losing the first three games of a series.

Only the 1975 New York Islanders have accomplished both.

The Flyers go to Boston on Friday (7 p.m. ET, VERSUS, TSN, RDS, CSN-PH) trying to become the first team since those '75 Islanders to win a series after losing the first three games. They've already become the first team in 35 years to get to a seventh game after falling behind 3-0.

One thing they're not likely to match: The Islanders did both in the same year -- in back-to-back series.

The 1975 Islanders weren't even supposed to have gotten to the quarterfinals against Pittsburgh. The third-year club wasn't expected to get past their big-city rival, the Rangers, in the best-of-three preliminary round -- but they did, winning Game 3 in overtime at Madison Square Garden in a game then-Isles GM Bill Torrey later called "the biggest win in franchise history."

But a series against the Penguins was no bargain.

The Islanders were 0-for-Pittsburgh in their first three seasons, and nothing changed at the start of the playoffs. The Penguins took the first two games, 5-4 and 3-1, and then put the Isles on the edge of elimination with a 6-4 victory at Nassau Coliseum on April 17.

But sparked by a goaltending change -- coach Al Arbour sat Billy Smith in favor of Glenn "Chico" Resch -- the Islanders made sure they wouldn't be swept by winning 3-1 at home. They stunned a Civic Arena crowd that was ready to celebrate the franchise's second trip to the League semifinals with a 4-2 win in Game 5, and then delighted their home fans with a 4-1 win in Game 6.
Resch remembers getting some help early in Game 7 at Pittsburgh.

"I had been getting breaks all series with the goalposts," said Resch, who appeared on the NHL Live radio show Thursday after Philadelphia knotted its Eastern Conference final series with Boston. Game 7 is tonight (7 ET, Versus, TSN, RDS). 

No team since the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs had won a series after trailing 3-0; in fact, no team had gotten this far after losing the first three games of a series since the 1945 Detroit Red Wings. At the start of Game 7 in Pittsburgh on April 26, the Isles looked like they'd have to settle for matching the Red Wings' accomplishment.

Pittsburgh came out flying, outshooting the Isles 14-5 in the first period and 11-6 in the second. But Resch -- with a little help from his goal posts, which stopped two other shots -- got them all, including a pair with his mask.

"Everyone thought we were a surprise and called us a Cinderella team. But they forgot what the playoffs are all about. It's a brand-new season, and we gave it the extra effort that it calls for."
-- Former New York Islanders defenseman, Gerry Hart

"We didn't make a bad mistake defensively," Torrey said afterward, "and nobody lost their cool."

The game remained scoreless past the 14-minute mark of the third period, but the Isles' defense started making life easier for Resch, and the offense began to generate some chances. At 14:42, captain Ed Westfall, a two-time Stanley Cup winner with Boston, took a pass from defenseman Bert Marshall and beat goaltender Gary Inness with a high backhander.

"We had nothing to prove," said J.P. Parise, who was the goal-scoring overtime hero in the Rangers series that year. "We had a bunch of young kids who played to win. That was our approach in all four [wins].

"The longer we stayed in there [kept the game close], we figured we were going to win," said Parise, who appeared on NHL Live Friday. "No one was a superstar, except Denis [Potvin]. We depended on each other, we were responsible to each other, we needed each other. That's how we did it."

Parise also credited coach Al Arbour with challenging players to believe in themselves even down three games to Pittsburgh. During an on-ice talk, Arbour told the team, anyone who doesn't think we can still win this series, can leave now.

No one left, no one even moved, said Parise. 

"We were written off in the New York series. We were down three here and they wrote us off, which just proves what great players we have," Arbour told the media after the game. "They never heard of the word quit."

The Isles' reward for their comeback win was a semifinal meeting with the defending Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers. Much as the Penguins had done, the Flyers rolled to a 3-0 series lead, winning 4-0 and 5-4 (in overtime) at the Spectrum and 1-0 in Game 3 at the Coliseum.

But Arbour was right -- his team really wouldn't quit. New York blew a 3-0 lead in Game 4 but won 4-3 in overtime; shocked the Spectrum crowd by routing the Flyers 5-1 in Game 5; and held on for a 2-1 win at the Coliseum in Game 6.

Could they do it again?

The Flyers took no chances. They had had tremendous success (41-3-1 in a six-year span) when playing Kate Smith's version of "God Bless America" instead of "The Star-Spangled Banner" -- and for Game 7, they brought Smith in to perform live (they never had lost, or even been scored upon, when Smith sang live). Westfall brought her a bouquet of flowers and the Isles lined up to shake her hand, but the Flyers' good luck charm still worked her magic.

"She's a nice lady," Westfall said. "We wanted to do something nice, so we gave her flowers."

The Flyers came out storming. Gary Dornhoefer beat Resch with a 40-footer just 19 seconds into the game, and Rick MacLeish's power-play tip-in 2:08 later made it 2-0. Jude Drouin got one back with a power-play goal of his own at 5:02, but MacLeish scored again at 7:11 (a number that would become legendary on Long Island five years later) to put the Flyers back in front by two.

The poor start doomed the Islanders, who managed only 15 shots in the game and rarely tested Bernie Parent. MacLeish scored into an empty net late in the third period to finally end the Isles' season.

Their spirits were bruised, but certainly not broken.

"Everyone thought we were a surprise and called us a Cinderella team," defenseman Gerry Hart told the media afterwards, "but they forgot what the playoffs are all about. It's a brand-new season, and we gave it the extra effort that it calls for."

The Islanders won seven consecutive games in which they faced elimination -- a record that will be difficult to top. Marshall, a 31-year-old and one of the few experienced Islanders, noted prophetically that despite the loss, "there's definitely a future for this team."

He had no way of knowing how right he was -- five years later, the Islanders got even by beating the Flyers for the first of four consecutive Stanley Cups. Ironically, they never faced a Game 7 in any of them.
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