They were called the "Team Shrink," the most neurotic team in the National Hockey League.
The New York Islanders were young, talented, and anxious. They were perpetually on the couch: self-destructive, especially in the playoffs.
Last night, the Islanders "terminated" the Boston Bruins, to move into the Stanley Cup semifinals against the Philadelphia Flyers beginning on Sunday, "I think," said captain Denis Potvin, "we've finally worked it through."
The islanders were born in 1972. Within three years, they had advanced to the Stanley Cup semifinals, first against the Flyers in 1975, and then against the Montreal Canadiens in 1976 and 1977. Each time they lost. But they were not supposed to be there anyway.
By 1978, they were no longer overachievers. They were expected to win. Instead, they lost the seventh game in overtime of the quarterfinals to the Toronto Maple Leafs after taking a 2-0 lead in games at the Nassau Coliseum.
The playoffs last season were even worse. The Islanders finished with the best record in the league (116 points to Montreal's 115) and met the New York Rangers in the semifinals.
The Islanders are shopping malls and McConald's and 20 miles per gallon highway. The Rangers are BROADWAY, sardi's and "Hey, Taxiiiii."
Sardi's won. The Islanders had gagged once again in the playoffs.
So here they were in Boston Tuesday night, after what had been a mediocre regular season (fifth place overall), playing the Bruins for the first time in the playoffs. They were winning, 3-1, in games but had lost the night before in overtime. It was one of those games they should have won, and the first question asked later in the locker room was: "Do you guys lack killer instinct?"
The Bruins, in their black and yellow jerseys, came out swarming like bumblebees. They buzzed goaltender Billy Smith with eight shots in the first period to the Islanders' four. With only 3:28 gone in the first period, the Bruins were ahead, 2-0. The Islanders were stung.
"In the old days we might have looked to the next game and written this off," said center Lorne Henning.
"They threw everything they had at us. Maybe they expected us to die," said left wing Clark Gillies.
Certainly the fans in Boston did. "I figured they were gonna choke, after last night, after last year," said Brooks Weiner. "After the first period, I figured the Bruins had 'em cleaned."
So the opportunity to choke was there. "Sure it was," said Potvin, who scored the last goal. "The difference is we don't think as much. We just go out and play hockey.
The Islanders in the second period calmly digested the tired Bruins, who had played eight games in 11 days. Afterward, Coach Al Arbour said, "We struggled enought all year. All of the aggravation paid off. They worried all year and now they know how to handle it. They've stopped nit-picking."
The Islanders are a team with a split personality. In the mid-'70s they were always digging in the corners, taking the body. They played 60 minutes of hockey.
"We were too damn young to do so well," said Potvin, the nucleus of those early teams. "From then on, everyone expected us to go to the Stanley Cup. And we did not have the team."
Were they over their heads? "Yeah," he said, "we put pressure on ourselves to do things. The pressure was tough and we cracked."
Bill Torrey, president and general manager, said, "We were a hard-working team. We had some measure of success on aggressiveness. But we were not on a skill level high enough to win the Stanley cup."
Torrey says that the difference between the Islanders and the Canadiens in the 1976-77 playoffs was speed, just as it was the difference between the Islanders and Bruins last night. In 1977, he acquired speedy center Wayne Merrick from Cleveland. Also that year Mike Bossy arrived with his 53 goals and his Calder trophy. He became the "boss."
The Islanders became a skating team, a one-line team, overly dependent on the Bryan Trottier-Mike Bossy-Clark Gillies line (they scored 151 of the Islanders 358 goals last season).
In the 1977 playoffs, the Maple Leafs showed them the error of their ways. "They roughed us up," said Potvin. "We were feeling the fights and feeling upset. We had the bodies, but we just wanted to play hockey. We kept saying, "Why do they keep hitting us?'"
"It worked for them," said Henning "Now we realize we have to stand up for ourselves."
But it took losing to the Rangers a year later to make that realization stick.
"With Boss and Trots we always thought we had the game wrapped up," Potvin said. "Then in the playoffs we had to revert back and we couldn't do it."
The multitalented Islanders were roundly panned for losing to the supposedly less-endowed city slickers.
"We had to put up with it," said Potvin. "It's no one's fault but ours. We've lost the series that we should have won.
Torrey said, "if we had lost to Montreal it would not have been half as bad. But we lost to our next door neighbors in the Garden, with all the press."
Torrey resisted the temptation for radical surgery during the offseason.
"We were the best team for six months," he said, "and the worst for May. Overall we were pretty good. I looked at it from that perspective and the average age of our players, 24-25. I assumed we had a chance to be just as good or better."
But the Islanders got off to a terrible start. Potvin missed 49 games with a bruised clavicle; right wing Bob Nystrom missed six weeks with a separated shoulder; left wing Bob Bourne missed a month with a broken foot. The Islanders were still hovering around 500 at the end of February.
Torrey began to make some changes. In December, he had traded center Mike Kaszycki to the Washington Capitals for defenseman Gord Lane. cThen on Feb. 26 he signed Olympic defenseman Ken Morrow.
"Lane added toughness and strength. Morrow had that plus mobility," said Torrey. As a result, "we were in a position to trade (defenseman Dave) Lewis, who had been a major part of our defense for five years."
One minute before the trading deadline on March 11. Torrey sent Lewis and right wing Bill Harris to the Los Angeles Kings for center Butch Goring. The Islanders are 15-4 since Goring arrived.
"I've been surprised by the way we've played," said Goring, "I heard so many things about the Islanders being a one-line hockey team. But since I've been here I've watched 18 other guys play hockey."