When the 1982-83 regular season concluded, the three-time defending Stanley Cup champions seemed a pale imitation of their previous selves. At 42-26-12, the New York Islanders were tied for sixth in the NHL with 96 points, down from 118 in 1981-82. They had scored 83 fewer goals than in the season before (302, down from 385), and a staggering 122 fewer goals than the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers, the League's emerging power.
Video: 1982-83 Islanders win fourth straight Stanley Cup
To many observers, the Islanders seemed oddly vulnerable for a team that hadn't lost a playoff series since 1979. However, that opinion was not shared inside coach Al Arbour's locker room.
"Never count out a champion," said Ken Morrow, a stalwart defenseman for those Islanders teams and now their director of pro scouting. "Once you've done it, there's a confidence that comes out and you're able to raise your game to another level when you have to."
[1982-83 New York Islanders roster]
Raise your game, indeed. In the final month of the regular season, from March 3-April 3, the Islanders went 10-4-0 and outscored their opponents 62-36. Morrow said the strong finish was no accident.
"When we got through February, our mindset changed," Morrow said. "Al put an emphasis on making sure we were playing our best hockey going into the playoffs."
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The Islanders did not relent. They defeated the Washington Capitals in four games in the Patrick Division Semifinals, then advanced past the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins, each in six games, to move into the Stanley Cup Final. Their opponent was the upstart Oilers, who could hardly have had any more momentum; Edmonton had scored 74 goals in winning 11 of its 12 playoff games.
The Oilers' youthful array of weapons -- they had five players with 96 or more points (Gretzky, 196; Mark Messier, 106; Glenn Anderson and Jari Kurri, 104; Paul Coffey, 96) -- appeared all but unstoppable heading into Game 1 at Northlands Coliseum.
But Billy Smith, the Islanders' feisty goaltender, and his imposing defense, led by Denis Potvin and Morrow, ground the greatest show on ice into something you'd see at a county fair. They were ably assisted by centers Bryan Trottier and Butch Goring, who did a yeoman's defensive job on Gretzky.
The final score of Game 1 was 2-0, with the Islanders getting an early goal from Duane Sutter and an empty-net goal by Morrow. It was the first time the Oilers had been shut out all season.
"Without a doubt, they shut us down defensively," said Gretzky, who was the leading scorer in the playoffs with 38 points (12 goals, 26 assists) but was held to no goals and 16 shots in the Final. "When we did break them down, and get by them, Smith was always there to make the big save."
Morrow agreed that Smith was at his best against the Oilers.
"Billy played out of his mind, especially in that first game in Edmonton," Morrow said. "It if weren't for Billy, we probably wouldn't have won the game."
Smith made 35 saves in Game 1 and 30 in Game 2, a 6-3 victory two days later when the Islanders got two goals from Duane's younger brother, center Brent Sutter, and one by forward Mike Bossy, who would finish with an NHL-high 17 playoff goals. Five days later, Smith had a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and the Islanders had a fourth consecutive championship as well as a four-game sweep few saw coming, powered by the 16 men who played on all four Cup-winning teams.
Video: Memories: Isles win fourth-straight Stanley Cup
The Oilers, who scored 424 regular-season goals, managed just six in the Final.
Suddenly, there was very little discussion about the Islanders' supposed vulnerability. From the start of their reign, the Islanders were a team with a grinding, workaday mentality.
"We're not the New York Yankees," Goring said. "We don't go running around telling everyone how great we are. We just go out on the ice every night and show how good we are."
Arbour may have put it best.
"There's no team of greater character in any sport," he said, "than this team right here."
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The Greatest NHL Teams were voted by fans during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as part of the NHL Centennial Celebration. Stanley Cup championship teams from 1918-2016 were eligible, and the top 10 were announced during the 2017 Final.