The I's Have It--So Far

Jim Shorts

UNIONDALE, L.I., N.Y.--Surly. Not amused. Impatience bordering on anger. December, 1979, the Nassau Veterans Memorial Colliseum. The New York Islanders, owners of the best record in the NHL the previous season, are floundering. They have lost to teams they should trash without sweating and, for the first time in five years, must struggle mightily for every point.

Tonight is no exception; after two periods, they trail a mediocre club, and the 14,995 faithful denizens have lost their sense of humor. It being the holiday season, a white-bearded, red-and-white-bedecked Santa ho-ho-hos his way across the ice, waving to the crowd, hoping to raise drooping spirits. Stony silence. Then, a loud snarl from Section 308. "Get off the ice, Claus!"

Until mid-March, it was that kind of year for the New York Islanders and their fans. But after barely squeaking out a fifth-place overall finish in the regular season, the blue-and-orange have now knocked off, in succession, the Los Angeles Kings, the Boston Bruins and, with Saturday night's 5-2 come-from-behind win, the Buffalo Sabres to secure their first trip ever to the Stanley Cup finals.

The two teams have met once before in post-season play. In 1975, the Islanders stunned the hockey world in only their third year of existence by upsetting the detested New York Rangers in the preliminary round and then, against Pittsburgh, becoming only the second team in sports history to capture a best-of-seven series after losing the first three games.

The semi-finals pitted the Islanders--still recovering from the euphoria of surviving four contests on the edge of death--against the defending Stanley Cup champion Flyers. Philadelphia swept the first three games, but New York survived an overtime thriller (and a disallowed Reggie Leach goal at the buzzer) to take game four, 4-3.

Game five saw a 5-1 Islander romp and Clark Gillies pounding Dave Schultz into the Spectrum ice and forcing him to endure the humiliation of needing a teammate, Andre Dupont, to come to his rescue: back on Long Island, before a national television audience (those were days when the NHL had a contract with NBC), New York gave their fans a 2-1 Mother's Day gift and deadlocked the series at three games apiece.

As it turned out, only Kate Smith could prevent lightning from striking twice in the same playoff year. Five years ago tonight, the white-haired, bespectacled, jolly good luck charm whom the Flyers trotted out to sing "God Bless America" in place of the national anthem on only the most special--or, in this case, desperate--of occasions, did her thing.

Despite a clever psychological ploy designed to steal Miss Smith's thunder--Islander captain Eddie Westfall presented her with a bouquet and his teammates skated by to shake her hand--the Flyers scored just 19 seconds after the opening face-off and coasted to a 4-1 victory. Bobby Clarke & Co. went on to defeat Buffalo in something of an anti-climax.

Until this year, the seventh game of the semi-finals was as close as the Islanders would come to Lord Stanley. In 1976 and 1977, they played well but lost two tense semi-final series to the awesome Montreal Canadiens. Then, in a bitter disappointment, a season that saw New York rise to the top of the Campbell Conference ended when Lanny McDonald of the Toronto Maple Leafs wristed a shot past Glenn Resch at 4:13 of sudden-death in the seventh and decisive game of the quarterfinals.

For long minutes afterwards, Colliseum fans sat stunned, unable and unwilling to believe their eyes. Last year provided the supreme indignity: in a hockey civil war replete with variable loyalties and immense sociological implications, the 33rd St. and 8th Ave. Rangers shocked the Islanders and plunged their fans into a funk that did not lift until very, very recently.

An absorbing, engrossing and insightful delineation of the fall and rise of the Islanders will appear here at a later date. For now, suffice it to say that, despite the overpriced programs, tickets and parking, the surliness has left Nassau Colliseum and the excitement, confidence and scalpers have returned. Business, they say, is good.

*******

Seven seasons of shilling, uh, cheering for the Islanders preclude an objective prediction for the final series. However, a number of other Crimson editors have volunteered theirs. Bob Boorstin, president: "Isn't it seven that they play? I'm not a hockey fan." Laurence S. Grafstein, faithful Maple Leaf devotee: "Flyers in six. No, I mean the Islanders." Jeff Toobin, sports editor: "The Islanders have to win." Alexandra Korry, former managing editor and neo-hockey fan: "Definitely the Islanders." Patrick R. Sorrento '69, shop foreman and former terror of the Beacon Buddies of Lynde St.: "Islanders in six."

Well, I guess that settles it. Bruce Schoenfeld, who in his column predicted a Buffalo rout, was unavailable for comment.