The 1982 New York Islanders continued their dynastic run through the early part of the decade, winning their third straight Stanley Cup. The Islanders were undeniably the best team in the NHL, but this one came with one notable scare moment before the Cup was finally clinched.
New York had no weaknesses. They had the second-best defense in the league, anchored by Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Billy Smith and backup goaltender Roland Melanson started 36 games and finished in the top five in goals-against-average (GAA).
The Islanders had the second-best offense in the league, led by Mike Bossy. The right winger had 64 goals, second only to the great Wayne Gretzky in Edmonton. Bryan Trottier scored 50 times and both Bossy and Trottier were in the top five in assists.
John Tonelli and Clark Gillies were both 30-plus goal scorers, and while defenseman Denis Potvin was no longer an All-Star like he’d been in his heyday, but Potvin was still a quality player and the team captain.
It took New York about three months to really find their championship gear. They were 21-11-5 at the New Year—good, but not dominant. But from January 21 to February 20, the Islanders ripped off a then-league-record 15 straight wins. Even more impressive is that because overtime did not exist in regular season games, all of these wins came in regulation.
The Isles had another good run in March, going 11-1-3 and they rolled to the finish line 54-16-10, the best record in the NHL.
It was a new playoff format in 1982. The bracket had been expanded to 16 teams for the first time and was set up with the top four teams in each division qualifying and simply playing against each other, 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3. It was quite a departure from the previous format which ignored not only division, but conference affiliation and just seeded an open bracket.
The result was that while the Pittsburgh Penguins were the worst of the playoff teams in the Patrick Division and second-worst in the Wales Conference (the East), they were still better than a few teams in the West, then called the Campbell Conference. And the way this series went down suggested the Islanders would have been more than happy to take their chances with another opponent.
New York opened the best-of-five series in Nassau Coliseum and the first two games went to form—the Isles crushed the Pens by a combined score of 15-3. But the scoring went south when the series shifted to Pittsburgh. The Penguins stole a 2-1 overtime win in Game 3 and then grabbed Game 4 by a 5-2 count.
During the Islanders’ two previous Stanley Cup runs, they had never been pushed to an elimination game. In the decisive Game 5, they were a lot more than pushed. The Penguins got two second-period goals and led 3-1 going into the third period. The Coliseum was eerily silent as it seemed like a potential dynasty was about to strangled in the crib.
Nearly fifteen minutes went by in the third period and New York couldn’t get any closer. Finally Mike McEwen scored and made it a game. Then with 2:21 to go, Tonelli delivered the goal that saved the season and forced overtime. Six minutes into overtime, Tonelli did it again and New York won the series.
Perhaps it was a testament to Islander experience. The Edmonton Oilers, a rising power with Gretzky were easily the best potential threat to the Isles, but the Oilers got a scare of their own, against the Los Angeles Kings. And unlike the Islanders, Edmonton did not survive.
A battle of the Big Apple was next. The New York Rangers had finished second in the Patrick Division at 39-27-14 and had a particularly good offensive team. Ron Duquay scored 40 goals and three other players lit the lamp 30-plus times.
And in Game 1, the Islanders had not yet awakened from the funk that overtook them in the Pittsburgh series. The Rangers grabbed a 5-4 win. The Isles finally got the offense unleashed in a 7-2 victory. The series went to Madison Square Garden where an overtime goal from Trottier won Game 3, and a 5-3 victory in Game 4 followed.
The Rangers stayed alive in Nassau with a 4-2 win in Game 5, but at this point the 1982 New York Islanders kicked into high gear. They would win their next nine games in succession to win the Stanley Cup. It started by winning the sixth game 5-3 and sending their crosstown rival home.
The Quebec Nordiques (the organizational forerunner of the Colorado Avalanche) were the worst team in the Adams Division, but had upset Montreal and Boston to reach the conference finals. The Nordiques had an exceptionally talented offensive player in Peter Stastny, who was second to Gretzky in assists and third behind Gretzky and Bossy for total points.
Stastny’s Nordiques stayed in games with the Islanders but couldn’t win one. Scores of 4-1, 5-2, 5-4 in overtime and 4-2 locked up another trip to the Finals for New York.
Another weak opponent awaited in the Vancouver Canucks. They were the fourth-best team in the Campbell Conference (the West), but with fewer wins then the Nordiques or Canucks. Vancouver did have the fifth-best defense in the entire NHL, but New York consistently solved them when it mattered most.
It started in Game 1 at Nassau. The Islanders trailed 5-4 with seven minutes, when Bossy scored his second goal of the night with seven minutes left to tie it. Bossy completed the hat trick in overtime to win it. Another six-goal outing followed in Game 2, a 6-4 win.
Defense began to rule the day in Vancouver, but Smith was up to the challenge. He allowed just one goal in Games 3 & 4, and with wins of 3-0 and 3-1, the Islanders were hoisting a Cup again.
Bossy was far and away the best player in the Finals and throughout the playoffs. He scored seven goals in the four games against Vancouver and his 17 goals/10 assists were easily the team’s best for the postseason. He won the Conn Smythe Award, for MVP of the entire playoffs. Other heroes included Trottier, with 23 assists and Potvin who had 16 more.
The New York Islanders were the first United States team to win three straight Stanley Cups, a record that still stands. And they weren’t done.