This is going to be good.
The same teams are meeting in the Stanley Cup final in consecutive years for the first time in 25 years and, if the Penguins-Red Wings rivalry gets as hot as the Oilers-Islanders confrontations one-quarter of a century ago, then we’re in for a treat.
Let’s look back.
The New York Islanders, playing gritty hockey under coach Al Arbour, aimed for a fourth straight NHL title in the spring of 1983 and to get it they had to win the championship series against the dynamic Edmonton Oilers, the highest-scoring club in league history under coach Glen Sather.
“This is the goal I have been wanting ever since I started playing and now it’s within reach,” star Oilers centre Wayne Gretzky said before the opening game in Edmonton.
It wasn’t the league’s scoring champion and MVP who’d grab the headlines in the ’83 final, however. Islanders goaltender Billy Smith would be front and centre in earning MVP honours in a New York sweep.
Leading Islanders scorer Mike Bossy sat out the opener with tonsilitis so the defence would have to be at its best in Game 1, and it was. Their checking threw the Oilers into disarray and Smith drove them crazy in a 2-0 New York victory.
“It was the ultimate game for a defenceman to shut down a team with an attack like the Oilers,” said captain Denis Potvin.
Smith slashed at Oilers who dared approach his crease. Gretzky and Glenn Anderson got it across the thighs, and Dave Lumley got a major penalty for spearing Smith in retaliation near the end of the game. Battlin’ Billy was in their heads, and the Islanders convinced themselves that they could contain Edmonton’s dynamite offence.
In Game 2, the line of Bob Bourne between Alberta-born Sutters, Duane and Brent, led the Islanders to a 6-3 victory. Oilers fans shook their heads in disbelief.
The series shifted to Uniondale, N.Y., and the defending champs broke a 1-1 tie with four unanswered goals in the third period to win Game 3, 5-1. Bourne and the Sutters scored a goal apiece during the rally.
New York jumped to a 3-0 lead in the first period of Game 4 on goals by Bryan Trottier, John Tonnelli and Bossy. It was all over. Ken Morrow’s empty-netter touched off the start of the celebration on Long Island.
The Islanders had some of the sport’s top stars as well as a deep cast of foot soldiers and the ability to play excellent defence. Getting great goaltending from Smith was a big factor, too. They shut down the most productive offence in NHL history.
The Oilers had learned some valuable lessons.
As Gretzky and teammate Kevin Lowe were walking past their opponents’ dressing room on their way out of the rink, they were taken aback when they saw Bossy and his buddies applying ice packs on bruises and bumps. It was at that moment that the Oilers understood what it would take to win the Stanley Cup.
The two teams would go at it again in 1984. Sather’s club was surging. The Oilers had finished first overall during the regular season and a seven-game nailbiter against Calgary in the second round of the playoffs hardened them to battle.
“That seventh game against Calgary was a big turning point for us,” said Gretzky.
Everybody knew they’d eventually win it all. Would this be their year? Yes, the NHL’s flashiest team had matured and was ready.
The Oilers had smashed their league record for goals scored, while the defending champs were struggling with injuries.
Also, a format change – the league switched in the spring of ’84 to a 2-3-2 setup from the usual 2-2-2-1 setup – might have aided the Oilers. They knew that if they split on the road in the first two games they’d have a good shot at winning it all at home.
When Kevin McClelland scored the only goal and Grant Fuhr blanked the Isles in a 1-0 Edmonton win in the opener in Uniondale, the confidence level in the Oilers room couldn’t have been higher.
“We knew that they have had the best grinders in the NHL for the past few years and that to have a chance against them we had to win a few battles with them on the boards,” said McClelland. “Our club has been criticized for lack of defence but I think we showed that we have improved by a large amount in that area.”
The Isles rebounded to win the next game 6-1, with Clark Gillies scoring three goals, but it was all Edmonton when the series shifted west.
The Oilers romped 7-2 in Game 3. It was 2-2 when the Oilers struck for two goals in 17 seconds late in the second period. A Pat LaFontaine hit on Fuhr in a corner had angered them. It was the turning point in the series.
“There’s no doubt that you have to protect your goalie,” said Mark Messier, who scored twice that night. “That’s been a rule in hockey since the Ice Age.
“You can’t have the other team taking your bread and butter off the table.”
Potvin, logging a ton of ice time because fellow defencemen Dave Langevin and Stefan Persson were banged up, was hurting and had to sit out the third period. The Oilers added three unanswered goals and never looked back.
Game 4 was another 7-2 Edmonton win. The Oilers’ superiority in speed was telling. With Fuhr out after suffering a shoulder injury in the third game, Andy Moog was outstanding after taking over.
Game 5 was the 5-2 capper. Gretzky scored the first two goals and set up Jari Kurri for another. A beaten Smith was replaced by Roland Melanson for the third period. Lumley’s slider into an empty net had Edmonton fans jumping.
Messier was named MVP for scoring eight goals and assisting on 18 in 19 playoff games.
“The guys on this team are very close, truly good friends, and in one of our talks someone mentioned that if we lost to the Islanders again several of us wouldn’t be here next season,” said Messier. “Well, we all want to stay together and we knew that if we won we could be together a long time.
“I know it sounds corny but that was a big inspiration to the team.”
As for the Islanders, besides the injury-weakened back end, Bourne couldn’t play at all in the series because of a shoulder injury and Bob Nystrom lacked zip due to a leg injury.
“At the end, we just didn’t have enough,” lamented Arbour. “The Oilers are a very fine team and even when we beat them last year I knew that a club with that much talent was going to be tough to stop before long.”
Arbour’s crew was all class when their run was over.
“I feel no shame in turning the Cup over to them and I’m damn proud of what we’ve done in the last five years,” said Potvin. “But in the end the injuries caught up to us and our guys were just spent physically.”
As the Pittsburgh-Detroit showdown begins, there are some intriguing comparisons to what happened 25 years ago.
The champs are banged up – just as the Islanders were back in ’84 – with Nick Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk sitting out at the end of the previous round.
The challengers have the youthful vigour – sound like the Oilers of ’84? – with star forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin going for goals.
The big question now is: have the Penguins added enough sandpaper, as the ’84 Oilers managed to accomplish, to match the work ethic of the defending champions?