If the New York Islanders win a fourth straight Stanley Cup this season, they will gain a ranking among history's all-time great National Hockey League teams. Only the Montreal powerhouses of 1955-60 and 1975-79 have achieved such domination since Lord Stanley shelled out 10 guineas for the silver trophy in 1893.
The Islanders came within a couple of Pittsburgh mistakes of failing to survive the preliminary round last spring, and this time the path figures to be even more treacherous. Some potential opponents, like Boston and Minnesota, are considerably stronger, and the Islanders are ineligible for home-ice advantage in either semifinal or final series.
New York still has Al Arbour as its coach, however, and Denis Potvin finally signed a new contract. Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and goalie Bill Smith still are around, leaving the challengers a formidable task.
Still, the rest of the league knows the Islanders are the team to beat. PATRICK DIVISION
New York Islanders -- Although their fans paid up to $29 for playoff tickets, there was a noticeable reduction in enthusiasm for the team that has turned the Stanley Cup playoffs into bit of a bore. The players themselves are not bored, however, and Arbour has kept them hustling despite the absence of a serious challenger. General Manager Bill Torrey has satisfied appetites for spiraling salaries without being forced to peddle a star or two.
Philadelphia -- If Mark Howe gains motivation and Bob McCammon is better prepared in his second season as coach, the Flyers could be much improved. Goaltender Pelle Lindbergh, off his international play for Sweden, could be one of the NHL's best. The departure of malcontents Pete Peeters and Ken Linseman is a plus.
New York Rangers -- Herb Brooks did a remarkable job a year ago, convincing the players to adhere to his system and overcoming a number of injuries. The return of Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson will add scoring punch, but both defense and goaltending must be considered questionable.
Washington -- Only the uniforms are the same.
Pittsburgh -- The acquisition of Denis Herron as backup for Michel Dion gives the Penguins needed depth in goal. Randy Carlyle's back problems are reason for concern, with a lot of truth to the gag that his back was hurt by holding up the franchise so long. Penguins will lead NHL in penalties and could have trouble overcoming them.
New Jersey -- The only thing this club will challenge is the Capitals' 1974-75 record of 8-67-5, worst in NHL history. Goalie Chico Resch, the Devils' lone quality player, should keep them from finishing worse. ADAMS DIVISION
Boston -- Gord Kluzak, No. 1 pick in June's draft, will shore up the struggling defense. He should learn quickly, teamed with veteran Brad Park. Offense benefits from addition of left wing Brad Palmer, obtained from Minnesota as a guarantee not to draft Brian Bellows. Palmer was a junior linemate of Barry Pederson, who set the Bruins' rookie record with 44 goals. Questions concern durability of 51-goal scorer Rick Middleton, who had offseason shoulder surgery, and defenseman Ray Bourque, who broke his left arm playing softball in July.
Montreal -- Former Capitals Ryan Walter and Rick Green are being counted on to fulfill star potential, as well as provide leadership to a team that has disappointed fans with preliminary-round playoff flops two years in row. The debate in the media is whether Canadiens and/or Guy Lafleur have had it.
Buffalo -- The Sabres have more brains in Scotty Bowman, Jim Roberts and Red Berenson than they have talent. But three highly touted first-round draft picks -- Phil Housley, Paul Cyr and Dave Andreychuk -- promise big things in a couple of years. The return of goalie Bob Sauve and departure of Don Edwards should help morale.
Quebec -- The Stastny brothers' short-lived holdout did not promote team spirit on a club that has to work hard to keep English, French and Slovak contingents happy. The Nordiques have defensive holes and the acquisition of Rick LaPointe was only a minor step forward.
Hartford -- The Whalers continue to deal themselves into oblivion. They have had the same record, 21-41-18, two years in row and could make it three, with no hope of making the playoffs in this difficult division. NORRIS DIVISION
Minnesota -- Brian Bellows quickly proved he belonged by scoring three goals in his first three exhibition games. He promises an instant lift to the team that flattened out last year after reaching the Stanley Cup final in 1981. Willi Plett will lend muscle against teams such as Chicago, which intimidated the North Stars in ousting them in the preliminary round of the playoffs.
Chicago -- Orval Tessier, a success in the American League, takes over as coach of a team loaded with good young talent. Troy Murray, a star for North Dakota's NCAA champions, joins Denis Savard, Tom Lysiak and Terry Ruskowski in a superb center-ice group.
St. Louis -- Defenseman Rob Ramage fills one of Blues' biggest holes. The club was disappointing last season after two straight leaps forward, but should be back on track.
Toronto -- Defenseman Gary Nylund, third man chosen in June draft, should lift the Leafs into playoffs ahead of this division's other sad-sack outfit, Detroit. Czech center Peter Ihnacak will help, too.
Detroit -- The Red Wings have a new owner in Mike Ilitch, a new general manager in Jim Devellano and a new coach in Nick Polano. Unfortunately, the players are mostly the same. Defense is respectable, but there is minimal talent up front. SMYTHE DIVISION
Edmonton -- The Oilers learned a valuable lesson while losing their preliminary round series to Los Angeles. This year, emphasis should be on teamwork, rather than individual statistics, and it is unlikely that Wayne Gretzky will approach his record 212-point output. Czech wing Jaroslav Pousar is a plus; so is ex-Flyer Ken Linseman, if he stops taking dumb penalties.
Los Angeles -- Coach Don Perry woke up the talented but unmotivated Kings last season and figures to keep lashing them upward. Winger Phil Sykes of North Dakota, MVP in the NCAA tournament, should crack lineup. Center Victor Nechaev, NHL's first Soviet skater, will generate most publicity.
Vancouver -- The Canucks prospered in the playoffs despite the absence of injured defensemen Rick Lanz and Jiri Bubla. With them, and a newfound will to win, Vancouver figures to do very well.
Winnipeg -- The Jets were the surprise team last regular season, finishing second in the Norris Division. Once sorry Smythe Division is on its way up, too, and the transfer could hurt Winnipeg, both in extra travel and in superior opposition.
Calgary -- The Flames hired a college coach, Bob Johnson of Wisconsin, to sift the ashes of a disappointing season. New faces include goalie Don Edwards, defensemen Richie Dunn and Bill Nyrop, and forward Steve Christoff.