One dynasty ended and another one began in the 1979-80 NHL season. The Montreal Canadiens saw their run of four straight Stanley Cup come to an end. The 1980 New York Islanders were the team that stepped into the void and not only won the Cup, but began their own string of four consecutive championships.
New York was a new franchise, just founded in 1973, and it didn’t take long to see they were on the rise. They made the playoff semifinals three straight years from 1975-77 and were the only team competitive with the powerful Canadiens in the latter two trips.
Then postseason disappointment followed. The Islanders would spend the regular season looking ready to take the next step, only to be tripped up in spring.
They lost a quarterfinal series to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1978. Another semifinal loss in 1979 particularly stung—the Isles had the #1 playoff seed and were on a collision course to play the Canadiens, before a loss to the crosstown rival Rangers did them in.
It was that context, of rising young team mixed with playoff heartache, that the 1980 New York Islanders took the ice. The regular season wasn’t an easy one. Defenseman Denis Potvin, an All-Star, was injured and missed much of the year.
The offense was mediocre, as forward Clark Gillies saw his production decline. Goaltending wasn’t bad, but it was up and down by the standards of a championship contender, with Glenn Resch and Billy Smith splitting the chores.
What New York did have was center Bryan Trottier and forward Mike Bossy. Trottier scored 42 goals and was fifth in the NHL in assists with 62. Bossy tied for 5th in goals scored with 51, while sharing out 41 assists. And just before the playoffs began, reinforcements arrived.
A key trade brought center Butch Goring from Los Angeles, and Potvin got healthy. The team settled on the steadier Smith as the goalie for the playoffs. The Isles finished the season at 39-28-13 and were the #5 seed.
The NHL did not segment its playoffs by conference, and this was the first year the league put 16 teams into its postseason, so it was a straight 1 thru 16 seeding, with the first round a best-of-five. The Islanders drew Goring’s old team, the Los Angeles Kings.
Los Angeles had a fantastic center in Marcel Dionne. He was in the top five in both scoring and assists and was voted 1st-team All-Star at center. In a strange inconsistency, he finished ahead of a rookie center from Edmonton by the name of Wayne Gretzky, but Gretzky won the MVP award. Los Angeles had another All-Star in Charlie Simmer, whose 56 goals were tied for the league lead.
What the Kings didn’t do well was defense, and the Islanders opened the series with an 8-1 rout and closed it with a 6-0 romp. In between, the Kings got Game 2 by a 6-3 count, but the Isles responded with a 4-3 overtime win in Game 3 to set the stage for the closing shutout.
New York met the 4-seed Boston Bruins in the quarterfinals, and it would be best-of-seven the rest of the way. Boston had two good scorers in Rick Middleton and Jean Ratelle, ranking fifth in offense. It was the defense that made the Bruins a threat though. They ranked second in goals allowed, behind the work of Gerry Cheevers in net and a 19-year-old defenseman named Ray Borque who made his first All-Star team in 1980.
The Islanders showed they could grind out wins against a defensive team as easily as they could light the lamp against an offensive team. New York survived two overtime games in the old Boston Garden, 2-1 and 5-4 respectively.
They came back home to Nassau Coliseum and all but secured the series with a 5-3 win in Game 3. An overtime loss in Game 4 delayed the party, but the Isles closed it in Game 5, their 4-2 victory finishing the series win and a three-game road sweep.
In the same quarterfinal round, Montreal was first stretched to a Game 7 by the Minnesota North Stars, and when the upstarts finished off the champs, a new era was at hand.
One reason Montreal had fallen was that their coach during the dynasty years, the great Scotty Bowman, had moved over to the Buffalo Sabres. And those Sabres, the 2-seed in the playoffs, were next up for the Islanders in the semifinals.
Buffalo’s Danny Gare scored 56 goals, and shared the league lead with LA’s Simmer. The Sabres also had a top-five assist man in Gilbert Perreault and a 45-goal scorer in Rick Martin. Making Buffalo even more dangerous was the work of Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Don Edwards. There was every reason to think the Sabres were the best team in the league.
The Islanders again came out strong on the road and again showed they could win tough, low-scoring games. A 4-1 win in the opener gave way to a 2-1 win in double overtime. When the series went back to Nassau, the scoring opened up and New York held their own. The teams split a pair of 7-4 games.
Edwards stepped up with a 2-0 shutout in Game 5 that extended the series, but back in front of their own fans, the Isles took the sixth game 5-2 and for the first time in their short history, the New York Islanders were going to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The #1 seed Philadelphia Flyers were the last team in the way. The Flyers had been the team that preceded the Montreal Dynasty, with the Broad Street Bullies of 1974-75 and now Philadelphia was aiming to bookend the Canadien run.
The Flyers had excellent scorers in Reggie Leach and Bill Barber, along with a former MVP in center Bobby Clarke. Goaltender Pete Peeters was one of the league’s best.
Game 1 went to overtime tied 3-3 before Potvin put in the winning goal. New York then played its worst game of the postseason in Game 2, getting crushed 8-3. But they dominated the middle games at Nassau, winning Games 3 & 4 by a combined 11-3. Philadelphia took the fifth game 6-3 and New York came home for a Saturday afternoon game hoping to close it out for their own fans.
The game would be tight all the way, with the Islanders getting help on a disputed goal where the official later admitted he blew the call. Regulation ended with the score 4-4. In overtime, it was two relative unknowns that delivered. Lorne Henning launched a precision pass that Bobby Nystrom redirected into the net. The Islanders were Stanley Cup champions.
Trottier scored 12 goals and passed for 17 assists in the playoffs, winning the Conn Smythe Award as MVP of the entire postseason. Bossy had numbers of 10/13 and a key player who stepped up was Bob Bourne at 10/10. Goring and Potvin combined for 25 assists.
Now that the New York Islanders were finally over the hump and knew how to win, they weren’t going to stop anytime soon. Another four-year dynasty was at hand, as the Isles would own the NHL from 1980-83.