No hockey team is an island. Last year at this time the New York Islanders were in the process of slipping past the Montreal Canadiens to finish first in the National Hockey League's regular-season standings. That made them the team to beat in the playoffs, but in the semifinals the archrival New York Rangers beat them, four games to two.
Playing under the unaccustomed pressure of being favored, the young Islanders came out as tight as violin strings. "The playoffs shocked some of our less experienced players," says general manager Bill Torrey. "They didn't understand the pressure. They couldn't accept it."
Flash forward to this year at this time. The Islanders, as I write, are battling the upstart Minnesota North Stars for fifth in the overall league standings, well behind leading contenders Philadelphia, Montreal, Buffalo, and Boston.
The suburdan New Yorkers have no chance to move up between now and the start of playoffs next Tuesday, but they are a relaxed, improving, dangerous-looking team.
"Our spirit is much better," says Coach Al Arbour."We have the atmosphere you want toward the end of the year. We're having fun -- enjoying what we're doing but working hard. It's different than last year when we were so caught up in the regular-season race."
He might have added that the Islanders are winning. Heading into tonight's game against Atlanta, they had gone 10 games without a loss, and the streak included -- in the space of a week and a half -- tests from Buffalo, Philadelphia, Montreal, and Minnesota.
Observes Bob Nystrom, an industrious right winger, "We're building momentum at the right stage of the season. Last year we put so much pressure on ourselves to finish first in the standings that we had an emotional letdown in the playoffs. We went into a semislump and ran into the Rangers when they were flying. I don't think that will happen this year.
"The Flyers have been virtually unbeatable all season, but now they're tailing off. You have to suffer a slump sooner or later playing this long a schedule."
Adds Chico Resch, the loquacious goaltender, "The difference this year is that we know we're not going to win games on talent by itself. Last year we won a lot of games on sheer talent when the work input wasn't that great. Then when the playoffs came around and we had to work harder, check more, play with more desire, we tried to rely on talent alone and it didn't work. Those days are gone, and we realize it.
"Victories and ties against the top teams like we've been beating lately have to give our confidence a boost. We've been playing the best teams in the league and picking up points. So we have to feel we can beat everyone in the playoffs."
The more frugal goalkeeping of Resch (and his sidekick Bill Smith) of late is a major cause for optimism in the Islander camp.
"I've been telling myself to keep my legs closed and my mouth open," Resch explains. "Before, it was the other way around. I was letting a lot of shots go between my legs, and I hadn't been talking it up with the guys."
Another major cause for optimism is the addition of Butch Goring,the versatile center acquired from the Los Angeles Kings late in the season.
"We've been a new team since the Goring deal," says Torrey, often accused of being slow to shake up his roster. "He hustles on every shift, he can kill penalties and move to the point on power plays, he thinks like a winner."
Defending his trading philosophy, Torrey says, "Trades are becoming more difficult to make with more teams in the league. You don't make a deal unless you can help your self all around. The emergence of young players like Anders Kallur from Sweden and Ken ,orrow from the US Olympic team enabled us to pay for Goring by giving up veterans Billy Harris and Dave Lewis. People don't realize that we have eight new faces on this squad."
Goring says it's obvious why the Islanders wanted him.
"For the past three years they have had Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, and Clark Gillies together on a line, and they've scored a lot of goals. But when that line was shut down, as it was in the playoffs last year, the team had trouble scoring. My job is to take some of the pressure off the Trottier line."
Arbour has been mixing up his lines, but usually goes with Trottier centering 50-goal scorer Bossy and Kallur, while Goring plays between Duane Sutter and Gillies. Against Quwbec Sunday night, in a 9-6 victory, Goring scored a hat trick and Gillies thumped around the Nordiques like the Gillies of old.
"With our line producing and Dennis Potvin healthy and anchoring the defense, I don't see why we can't be the best team in hockey," concludes Goring.
Time is about to tell.