The 1981 New York Islanders came into the season having already established their championship bona fides, winning a breakthrough Stanley Cup in 1980. Now they took the next step, the one to dominance. They were the best team in the NHL all season long and then coasted through the playoffs to their second straight championship.
New York benefitted from the season-long health of defenseman Denis Potvin, a perennial All-Star who had missed much of the previous season with injury. Potvin’s health in time for the playoffs was an important element in the ultimate run to the Cup and back on duty in 1981, he was again a 1st-team All-Star.
Bob Bourne had stepped up in the 1980 postseason with 10 playoff goals and that carried over to improved production in 1981, as Bourne had 35 goals and 41 assists. Clark Gillies, after a down year in 1980, produced 33 goals/45 assists.
All this improvement comes with the best two players on the team just getting better. Mike Bossy led the league in goals with 68 and was another 1st-team All_Star.
Bryan Trottier, a great passing center, was fifth in the NHL with 72 assists. The result was that New York led the league in goals scored.
Billy Smith and Glenn Resch continued to more or less split goaltending duties, with responsibility shifting to Smith for the playoffs. The Isles ranked fourth in the NHL in goals allowed. Their two-way excellence paved the way to a 48-14-14 record and the #1 seed for the playoffs.
The NHL’s 16-team playoff format was seeded without regard to conference, so the Isles drew the 16-seed Toronto Maple Leafs. Even though it was a mismatch, New York owed Toronto some revenge—in 1978, when the Islanders were on the rise and hoping for a showdown with the Montreal Dynasty, the Maple Leafs hung a seven-game upset on the Isles in the quarterfinals.
There weren’t going to be any such problems here. Toronto still had Darryl Sitter from that ’78 team, and he was still a good scorer. But defenseman Borjie Salming was now longer an All-Star, like he had been three years earlier. The Leafs ranked 19th in defense in a 21-team league. New York dropped nine goals in a Game 1 win and then closed out the best-of-five first round with wins of 5-1 and 6-1.
Edmonton awaited New York in the second round. The Oilers had a second-year center in Wayne Gretzky who had already won the MVP award both years he’d been in the league. The team as a whole still had some work to do—they were the 14-seed—but Gretzky, Mark Messier and Jari Kurri were all 20-years-old and they would one day be the team to dethrone the Islanders.
But not in 1981. Even though Edmonton had upset Montreal in the first round, the Oilers weren’t ready to play with the champs. New York scored three power play goals to take the opener 8-2, then Potvin went for a hat trick to key Game 2’s 6-3 win.
Gretzky answered with a hat trick of his own and the Islanders lost Game 3 on the road, but they got a big overtime in win Game 4, when Ken Morrow scored the clincher in a 5-4 win. Even though Edmonton won Game 5 by a 4-3 count, New York went on the road and wrapped up the series with a 5-2 win.
Upsets were clearing the path for the Islanders. The 4-seed Los Angeles Kings and 2-seed St. Louis Blues had been beaten the crosstown rival New York Rangers. The Rangers were the 13-seed and the opponent in the semifinals.
It was another revenge spot—in 1979, the Rangers delayed the Islanders’ ascendancy—or at least their chance to play Montreal in the Finals—with an upset in the semis. But this Ranger team was mediocre in every aspect and the 1981 semis were never in doubt. The Islanders won four straight by a combined score of 22-8, none of the individual games even being competitive.
The anticlimactic path to the Cup finished in the Finals. The Minnesota North Stars (subsequently relocated to Dallas) had beaten 5-seed Buffalo, and 6-seed Philadelphia had lost in the quarterfinals. The 7th-seeded North Stars were the toughest opponent New York would draw in this postseason.
Minnesota had done it with defense, ranking fifth in the league in goals allowed, but they couldn’t stop the sustained attack of the Islanders. New York scored 19 goals in the first three games, winning 6-3, 6-3 and 7-5 to take complete control of the Finals. The North Stars picked up Game 4, but when the series went back to Long Island, the Isles closed it out with a 5-1 win.
The postseason run—with the 2 thru 6 seeds all losing before the Islanders could play them—might have been anticlimactic, but it should be noted that New York had established a strong level of superiority throughout the regular season, and would have been a solid favorite against all comers.
Butch Goring won the Conn Smythe Award, as MVP of the entire postseason, with 10 goals/10 assists for the playoffs. Other players would have been stronger choices—Bossy scored 17 goals and shared out 18 assists. Trottier posted numbers of 11/18, while Potvin had 13 assists and keyed the team defensive effort.
The New York Islanders had two straight Stanley Cups and they were only halfway done.