Today we’re going to look at the one of the greatest teams of all time that played up to their full potential. They were strong offensively, strong defensively, strong in goal, and a sight to behold when they were playing their best. We are talking about one of the few true NHL dynasties. Names like Bossy, Smith, Trottier, and Potvin all inspire fond memories for those on Long Island. Today, our #5 team is the 1981-1982 New York Islanders.
The month of October started off great. The Islanders went 8-1-2 in the first month, winning their games by an average of 1.2 goals a game. They were crushing their competition and reminding everyone in the NHL exactly why they were the defending champions. They also were tied for the league lead in points with the upstart Wayne Gretzky-led Oilers so everything was right in Islander world. However, the Islanders slowed down a bit over the next two months going 13-10-3. To make matters worse, their division lead was just 2 points and they had fallen 9 points behind the Oilers. However, January and February are really when the Islanders really got going. After middling through the first 3 weeks of January with a 4-2-1 record, the Oilers kicked it into a gear that has rarely been seen in the NHL. From January 21st to February 20th, a full month, the Islanders did not lose. That’s not to say they tied games. They won every single game. All 15 of them. And they didn’t just beat teams, they obliterated them. The only way to really illustrate just how dominant is to show you each and every score from that winning streak below:
January 21st – vs Pittsburgh Penguins 6-1
January 23rd – vs New York Rangers 6-1
January 26th – vs Pittsburgh Penguins 9-2
January 27th – @ Pittsburgh Penguins 6-3
January 30th – vs Minnesota North Stars 4-2
February 2nd – vs Washington Capitals 7-6
February 4th – @ Washington Capitals 5-2
February 6th – vs Detroit Red Wings 6-2
February 7th – @ Buffalo Sabres 7-3
February 11th – @ Chicago Black Hawks 8-2
February 13th – vs Philadelphia Flyers 8-2
February 14th – @ Hartford Whalers 9-1
February 16th – vs Pittsburgh Penguins 6-2
February 18th – @ Philadelphia Flyers 7-4
February 20th – vs Colorado Rockies 3-2
Take a moment to process those box scores. Of those 15 wins, only 2 were 1 goal games. 9 of those 15 wins were won by 4 or more goals. During the streak, the Islanders averaged 6.5 goals a game. No that’s not a typo. 6.5 goals a game. Well some of you will point out that this was the hockey’s highest scoring era and that the Islanders probably gave up 3 or 4 goals a game during this span. Nope. The Islanders gave up an average of 2.4 goals a game during this stretch. That means the Islanders won their games by an average of 4 goals a game. Some call it the best stretch by any team in NHL history and with those stats, I’d be hard pressed to argue with that notion. On February 21st the Pittsburgh Penguins finally bested the Islanders after falling victim 4 times during the streak. Sometimes when streaks of this nature end, teams can go into a bit of a slump. Not these guys. The Islanders then rattled off a 9 game unbeaten streak (7-0-2), dropped a game, rattled off another 9 game unbeaten streak (7-0-2) and then dropped their last game of the regular season. For those of you keeping track, from January 21st until the end of the season, April 4th, the Islanders went 29-3-4. Absolutely insane. Their post All-Star break record of 20-3-4 is the 6th best record of all time. If you carry out the Islanders winning percentage over a full 82 game season, the Islanders record would have been 65-8-9. Absolutely incredible. Earlier in our countdown we looked at the 74-75 Flyers and how they went 12-0-2 down the stretch. The 81-82 Islanders took it to another level. The Islanders finished the season 54-16-10 for 118 points, the President’s Trophy, and all the marbles. Some other notables from the season include Mike Bossy notching his 3rd 60 goal season and a career high 147 points. Bossy was the runner up for the Art Ross and Hart Trophy to Wayne Gretzky who recorded his 92 goal 212 point season that year. Bryan Trottier also recorded a huge season, racking up 50 goals and 129 points. The third member of the Trio Grande line, Clark Gillies, scored 38 goals and 77 points. The real surprise for the Islanders was forward John Tonelli, who after only recording 52 points in 1980-1981, recorded 93 points to finish 3rd on the team in scoring. Finally in goal, Billy Smith turned in another stellar year, going 32-9-4 with a 2.97 GAA to win the Vezina Trophy.
The 1981-1982 season adopted a new playoff format where four teams from each of the four divisions would qualify for the playoffs. A best of 5 series was adopted for the 1st round and best of 7 series were used for all other rounds. Each of the 4 teams from each division would be seeded 1-4 and play against each other to advance to the conference finals. Thus each division would produce 1 team for the conference finals. The Islanders first round opponent was the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team they beat up in the regular season.
In the regular season, the Islanders won 6 of the 8 games played between the two teams and the average score between the teams was 5-2.75. In other words, the season series was pretty much a joke. However, with the first round being best of 5, the Penguins had hope. The Islanders quickly tried to extinguish any and all forms of hope by absolutely crushing the Penguins in Games 1 and 2. Game 1 was an 8-1 thumping and Game 2 was a 7-2 whuppin’. Heading back to Pittsburgh, the Islanders looked to close out the Penguins and get on to bigger and better things. However, the Penguins were not ready to quit just yet. The Penguins rallied to take Games 3 and 4, setting up a winner-takes-all Game 5 back in New York. In Game 5 the Islanders came out on a mission, but they just could not solve Michael Dion. The Penguins jumped to a 3-1 lead and with 6 minutes to play it looked like the Penguins were going to get the last laugh. The Islanders had outshot the Penguins 2-1 thus far, but the Pens owned the two goal lead. Islanders defenseman Mike McEwen scored to cut the deficit to 1 but still time was running out. The Penguins turned it up a notch, but Billy Smith made all the stops, some of them spectacular, keeping his team in it just long enough for John Tonelli to score to send the game into overtime. In overtime, Tonelli played the role of hero again, scoring brilliantly to send the Islanders on to the next round.
In the 2nd round, the Islanders faced off against the New York Rangers. As was the case with the Penguins, the Islanders took 6 of the 8 games and pretty much owned the Rangers. However, the Islanders were looking a little shaky and the Rangers led by Center Mike Rogers, smelled blood. The Rangers did just that, stealing Game 1 on the road, 5-4. All of a sudden, a lot of questions were being raised about the Islanders. Just as quickly as those questions were raised, the Islanders extinguished them over the next 3 games as the Islanders jumped out to a 3-1 lead. The Rangers stole Game 5 to make things interesting, but the Islanders came right back and took Game 6 5-3 to put away the Broadway Blueshirts for the second year in a row. However, the Islanders just didn’t appear right. After dropping only 3 games all postseason last year and after dropping only 3 games over the final 3 months of the regular season, the Islanders had already dropped 4 games in the postseason. Thankfully they were still alive, but the uncertainties remained.
In the Conference Finals, the Islanders met up with the Quebec Nordiques. The teams met 3 times in the regular season, with the Islanders going 1-1-1 in the high scoring affairs. The Nordiques were led by their all world talent Peter Stastny who had notched 46 goals and 139 points that season. The Islanders took Games 1 and 2 handily by 4-1 and 5-2 scores respectively. Game 3 was the Nordiques chance to get a foothold in the series, and it was a thriller. The game was tied at 4 after 60 so we were going to get some extra hockey. In OT, Islanders forward Wayne Merrick became the hero as he scored to lift the Islanders to a 5-4 win and a commanding 3-0 series lead. Game 4 was a breeze and the Islanders put away the Nordiques 4-2. The Nordiques were the 4th highest scoring team in the regular season (average of 4.45 goals a game), but the Islanders held the Nordiques to just 9 goals in the 4 games.
In the Stanley Cup Finals were the upstart Vancouver Canucks. In the regular season, the Canucks were awful. They went 30-33-17 for 77 points. The 41 point difference between the Islanders and Canucks is the greatest difference in Finals history. But something clicked for them in the playoffs. They swept the Flames in round 1, beat the Kings in 5 in round 2, and then beat the Black Hawks in the Conference Finals in 5. They were 11-2 heading into the Finals, compared to the 11-4 Islanders. Unfortunately though, the Canucks ran into a buzzsaw. Game 1 was a competitive back and forth game that saw the Canucks clinging to a slim 5-4 lead with 7 minutes to go. However, it was at this moment that Mike Bossy decided to turn into a boss and tie the game, banging in a loose rebound left by Canucks goalie Richard Brodeur. The game went into overtime which was a very tightly played period. Just when it seemed like double OT was inevitable, Bossy struck again. Bossy intercepted a pass from Vancouver defenseman Harold Snepsts, skated in, and beat Brodeur with just 2 seconds remaining to complete his hat trick. Game 2 was another tightly contested game that saw the Canucks clinging to a 4-3 lead heading into the 3rd period. However, the Islanders struck again, scoring 3 goals in the 3rd period to win 6-4. After those close first two games, the Canucks spirits were broken. Heading back to Vancouver, the crowd tried their best to pump up their deflated team. The Canucks threw the kitchen sink at Billy Smith in the first period, but could not beat him. The Islanders took their time and scored 3 goals to beat the Canucks 3-0. Game 4, the clincher, was just as easy. The Islanders easily cruised to a 3-1 victory to clinch their 3rd consecutive Stanley Cup. Bossy scored 7 goals in the series to win the Conn Smythe and the rest is history.
So that’s the story of the 81-82 Islanders. But what separates this team from the others? This team was so balanced. They were 2nd in goals for, 2nd in goals against, had 8 20 goal scorers, 13 10 goal scorers, #1 in Powerplay %, 4th in PK%, and were 33-3-4 at home. Just across the board their offense was so strong, their defense was led by their captain Denis Potvin, and if anything got past them, it was stopped by Vezina Trophy winner Billy Smith. This team got the best season of Bossy’s career, the best goal scoring year of Trottier’s career, and the only Vezina Trophy season from Billy Smith. Also throw in their then-NHL record 15 game demolition streak, and you have the makings of the #5 team of all time.