There weren’t a ton of dramatics in the 1981 NHL playoffs, but the New York Islanders left no doubt who was best, winning their second straight Stanley Cup. The Isles had the league’s best offense, led by All-Star forward Mike Bossy and his 68 goals, and the impeccable passing skills of center Bryan Trottier. Defenseman Denis Potvin was an All-Star and Billy Smith was in net as they led a unit that was fourth-best in the NHL in goals allowed.
New York posted the best record in the regular season and then opened the playoffs by sweeping the Toronto Maple Leafs. The next opponent up was an intriguing one—the Edmonton Oilers, who had this kid named Wayne Gretzky who won his second MVP award before turning 21. Gretzky’s Oilers eliminated the Montreal Canadiens, as the dynasty of 1976-79 continued their fall from grace. But Edmonton wasn’t ready to match up with a team like the Islanders yet, though they did stretch the series to six games.
The 1981 NHL playoffs were like most springs are in this league, which is to say they were filled with upsets. By the time we were pared down to the semi-finals, the three teams joining the Islanders had all finished third or fourth in their respective divisions.
Two years earlier, in 1979, the New York Rangers had delayed the rise of their Big Apple rival to prominence. The Islanders had been poised that spring to rise to the top, but were upset in the semifinals by the Rangers and the Montreal dynasty got a reprieve for another year. This year’s semifinals were revenge team. It was Islanders-Rangers again, and this time the boys from Long Island rolled up 22 goals over four games in a series sweep.
The 1981 Stanley Cup Finals pitted the Islanders against the Minnesota North Stars, and it was a decisive five-game series win for New York. Center Butch Goring won the Conn Smythe Award with 10 goals/10 assists, a curious decision, given Bossy’s 17/18 and Trottier’s 11/18. But that was all there was to debate in the 1981 NHL playoffs. There was no doubt who the best team was.