The 1983 New York Islanders were no longer a dominant team, like they had been so often their run of three straight Stanley Cups from 1980-82. But the Isles were plenty good enough in the regular season and they were still great when it counted, winning a fourth straight Stanley Cup.
New York slipped into the lower half of the league in terms of offensive prowess. They still had a great scorer in Mike Bossy, whose 60 goals were third-best in the league and he was a 1st-team All-Star. The Isles also had center Bryan Trottier, with 34 goals/55 assists and 31-goal scorer John Tonelli. But there wasn’t depth to the attack and the Islanders ranked 15th in a 21-team league in scoring goals.
It was defense that kept the Isles rolling. They were the best in the league and had two premier goalies. The veteran Billy Smith and the youthful Roland Melanson split time and each finished in the top five among goalies in their Goals Against Average.
New York was sluggish out of the gate, with a 19-15-7 record at the New Year, but a 10-2-2 run in January got them in track. They closed the season with a 14-4-1 record over the last nineteen games and the final regular season mark was 42-26-12.
It was a good record and they had good momentum, but the Islanders were looking up at the Philadelphia Flyers in the Patrick Division, they were fourth in the Wales Conference (the East) and tied for seventh in the NHL overall. The rest of the league was smelling a chance to end the dynasty.
The playoff format took four teams from each division, and they played a divisional playoff to pair it down to the conference finals and ultimately the Stanley Cup Finals. The Islanders met the Washington Capitals in the Patrick Division semifinals, then a best-of-five round.
Washington had three 30-goal scorers, Dennis Maruk, Mike Gartner and Bob Carpenter, along with the fifth-best defense in the NHL. They stole a win in Nassau Coliseum, getting Game 2 by a 4-2 count after the Isles had won the opener 5-2. When the series went to the Beltway, the Islander offense heated up with wins of 6-2 and 6-3 to close it out.
New York then got a break, when Philadelphia was upset in three straight by the New York Rangers. A .500 team, the Rangers most notable talent was second-year head coach Herb Brooks, who had led the “Miracle On Ice” 1980 U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal.
When the Islander defense was in shutdown mode for 4-1 and 5-0 victories to open the series, it looked their Big Apple rival would be roadkill. But the Rangers rallied when the series shifted to Madison Square Garden and exploded offensively in a 7-6 win to take Game 3. Then they showed they could win a defensive fight, with a 3-1 win that knotted the series at two games apiece.
The Isles finally asserted themselves in the back end of the Patrick Division Finals. They unleashed at home for a 7-2 win, and then took Game 6 in the Garden by a 5-2 count.
There would be no more bracket breaks the rest of the way. In the Wales Conference Finals, New York had to meet the Boston Bruins, winners of the President’s Trophy for best regular-season record.
The Bruins had the second-best defense in the NHL, right behind the Isles, with an excellent young goaltender in Pete Peeters. They had the fifth-best offense, led by All-Rookie center Barry Pederson, with his 46 goals and 61 assists. The offense had depth, with Rick Middleton, Keith Crowder and Peter McNab. And a brilliant young defenseman named Ray Borque was already an established star at age 22.
New York came into Boston Garden and grabbed the series opener 5-2 before Boston won Game 2 by a 4-1 count. It was the middle games at Nassau that the Islanders took it over. Their subpar offense wasn’t supposed to go crazy against a top goalie and overall team defense, but the Islanders won Games 3 & 4 by scores and 7-3 and 8-3. Even though the dropped Game 5 back in Boston, New York came home and closed it out with one more offensive outburst, 8-4.
In front of their home fans, the Islanders had scored 23 goals in three games against an elite defense. That’s called taking over at playoff time.
There was one more big hurdle and it was the rising force out of the Campbell Conference (the West). Wayne Gretzky had been MVP of the NHL every year since breaking in at age 18 in 1980. His Edmonton Oilers, with the best record in the West, looked ready to finally claim their first championship.
Gretzky’s 71 goals led the league. Mark Messier, Glenn Andersen and Jari Kurri were all 40-plus goal scorers and defenseman Paul Coffey was a brilliant passer with 67 assists.
It set up an offense vs. defense battle. Edmonton had the best offense in the NHL, but a middling defense and goaltending situation. The games that followed established this lesson—when you have a choice between a veteran team that plays defense and a rising young team with an explosive offense and great player, go ahead and bet on the vets who can play D.
The “time for veterans” theme had been established right from the start of the playoffs for New York when they went almost exclusively with the 32-year-old Smith in goal. And when he hung a 2-0 shutout on the mighty Gretzky in Game 1 the tone for the Stanley Cup Finals was established.
New York consistently slowed the game down, controlled the pace and never let Edmonton get unleashed. The Islanders took Game 2 by a 6-3 count. They came home and won the middle games 5-1 and 4-2. Smith won the Conn Smythe Award, as MVP of the entire postseason.
Edmonton would get its day on the sun—quite a few of them in fact, and starting next year. But the great veterans of the 1983 New York Islanders basked in glory one more time with another Stanley Cup.