Hockey History Deep Dives
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On May 17, 1983 the New York Islanders would win their fourth, and to date latest, Stanley Cup.
The 1980-1983 New York Islanders dynasty stands today as the only time in North American sports history that a team has been able to win four straight championships in a league with more than 20 teams. No NHL team since has managed as much as three straight championships, and only 5 times in the 37 years since has there been back-to-back champions (Edmonton Oilers 1984 & 85 and again in ‘87 & ‘88, Pittsburgh Penguins ‘91 & ‘92, Detroit Red Wings in ‘97 & ‘98 and most recently the Penguins again in 2016 & ‘17).
The story of the 1983 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs was a classic story. A dominant New York Islanders team coming off their third straight championship win and looking to extend their dynasty. A young, flashy, sexy Edmonton Oilers team featuring a 22 year old Wayne Gretzky, looking to prove it was their time. It had all the makings of a great passing of the torch story except for one thing, the Islanders weren’t ready to pass the torch just yet.
During the regular season the Oilers were showing the NHL just how dominant of a team they could be. The Oilers, captained by 27 year old defenemen Lee Fogolin and featuring six future Hall-of-Famers, lead the NHL with 424 regular season goals, finishing with a Smythe division leading 47-21-12 record. The veteran Islanders opted to utilize a drastically different style of play allowing only 226 goals against, the lowest in the NHL.
Once playoffs started the Oilers showed the world they weren’t getting paid by the hour and made quick work out of their opposition, beating the Winnipeg Jets 3-0, Calgary Flames 4-1, and the Chicago Black Hawks in a 4-0 sweep to reach the first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history. In this 11 game stretch they had a +31 goals for/against differential, averaging just under 7 goals per game. The Islanders road to the finals wasn’t as smooth but the defending champs managed to take care of the Washington Capitals, New York Rangers and the NHL regular season champion Boston Bruins while only losing 5 games.
This was the first of eight straight seasons where the province of Alberta would be represented in the Stanley Cup Finals, as one of the Oilers (6 times) or rival Calgary Flames (2 times) would make the finals every year until the 1990-91 season. This was also the first time a team from Alberta had played for the Stanley Cup since 1923 and 1924 when the Edmonton Eskimos and Calgary Tigers respectively represented the Western Canada Hockey League (WCHL) in a series against the NHL Champion. Both teams failed to take home Lord Stanley's Cup as Edmonton fell to the Ottawa Senators and Calgary was defeated by the Montreal Canadiens.
Game One at the Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton was a harsh shot of reality to the young stars of the Oilers as the more seasoned Islanders completely shut them down, winning the game 2-0. This trend continued as Islanders star goaltender Billy Smith infuriated Oilers players and fans alike with his stellar play between the pipes and with his aggressive and violent actions outside of them. Dubbed by Edmonton media as “Public Enemy # 1” after a slash he delivered to Oilers winger Glen Anderson kept him out of practice the next day. Oilers management were equally upset at the Islanders goaltender as coach Glen Sather threatened to “take out” Smith, to which “Samurai Billy'' responded "Let's face it. If Semenko runs at me and hurts me, anything could happen, and the victim could be Gretzky. If they want blood.…".
Smith didn’t let the back and forth in the media distract him as he continued his great performance helping the islanders win game three 5-1 and clinch the cup with a 4-2 performance in game 4. Smith helped hold the Oilers to only six goals in the series twice making 30+ saves and was rewarded by being named Playoff MVP.
The Islanders were helped by the play of Sutter brothers Duane & Brent who combined 42 points in the playoffs and 8 points combined in the first 3 games against the Oilers. Islanders star Mike Bossy scored his second career Stanley Cup Winning goal to clinch the series, the goal was Bossy's league leading 17th of the ‘83 playoffs.
Over four games the Islanders managed to hold Wayne Gretzky to four points and zero goals. Ironically it was 4 years later to the day in 1987 when Wayne Gretzky became the first player in NHL history to score 200 career playoff points. The “200 Career Playoff Points” club is one of hockey's most exclusive, featuring only five players, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glen Anderson, and Jaromir Jagr. However current Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby is sitting at 184 and at only 32 years old, and on a good Penguins team it’s likely the club will get its sixth member in the not too distant future. It's worth noting also that Crosby’s teammate Evgeni Malkin is also sitting only 32 points out.
The fallout of this series helped lead to the NHL’s next great dynasty, as while leaving the arena many Oilers passed the Islanders dressing room and noticed instead of partying and celebrating their championship the veteran Islanders were exhausted and icing their bodies. Mark Messier often attributes seeing this as the inspiration the young Oilers needed to eventually become a playoff powerhouse, winning four of the next five Stanley Cups, and 5 total before 1990.
The following season on October 4th, 1983 after a routine practice, Edmonton Captain Lee Fogolin asked the media to leave the Oilers dressing room, and when they returned Wayne Gretzky was Captain. Fogolin then told the media “I’ve talked about it for some time. Maybe a change like this will win us the cup”. Fogolin was correct as the Oilers would start the season 7-0-0 under Captain Gretzky, finished first in the NHL regular season, and eventually won the first Stanley Cup in franchise history, finally taking the torch from the Islanders with a 4-1 series win.