Uniondale, N.Y. — And so, after seven long months and what seems like about 7,000 preliminary games, it will be the upstart Minnesota North Stars against the upstanding New York Islanders for Lord Stanley's battered old cup, symbolic of North American hockey supremacy.
The first two games will be played tonight and Thursday night at the Nassau Coliseum here, as will a decisive seventh game if necessary, since the defending champion Islanders finished first during the regular season to the North Stars' ninth.
Minnesota won its semifinal series with Calgary over the weekend, four games to two, to reach the finals for the first time, while New York has been waiting for a week after sweeping its citified rivals, the Rangers, in four straight.
The youthful North Stars say they are not intimidated by the thought of meeting the overwhelmingly favored Islanders on the road, because they have won the opening game away from home in all three of their playoff series this spring. At one point they had won six in a row in enemy territory: Boston, Buffalo, and Calgary.
The Islanders say they are not worried about their extended layoff because they were ready for the rest -- particularly workhorse goaltender Billy Smith -- and needed the time to come down from the emotional peak they reached against the Rangers. They mentioned that they earned a lengthy respite after their two previous series and suffered no lasting ill effects.
"I don't think this team is going to have a letdown under any conditions," says right wing Mike Bossy, the National Hockey League's leading postseason scorer, with 13 goals and 14 assists for 27 points. "We've learned the hard way in the last three years that you don't relax even for a shift or two at this stage. Everyone on the team is concentrating on working hard in the first period of the first game -- in making sure we do everything right until we get our legs back."
With all the ups and downs of these unpredictable playoffs, which saw the early elimination of regular-season powers St. Louis, Los Angeles, Buffalo, Montreal, and Philadelphia, the awesome momentum generated by the Islanders has gone somewhat unappreciated.
Counting the last 17 games of the regular season, when they pulled their act together to overtake St. Louis and finish first in the overall standings, Coach Al Arbour's boys have lost only three of 30 outings while outscoring the opposition 145-76.
Their defense, anchored by captain Denis Potvin, has been all but impenetrable, and Smith has allowed a paltry 2.24 goals a game in the playoffs. Their offense has been all but unstoppable, with Bossy, Bryan Trottier, and associates connecting on an amazing 1 of every 4 shots (compared with 1 in every 7 1/2 shots a year ago).
The specialty teams have broken the playoff record for power-play goals and tied the one for shorthanded goals.
Can the North Stars, facing the high-rolling Islanders for the first time in a playoff situation, make it a series? They were the surprise of last year's playoffs when they upset Montreal in the quarterfinals, and they appear to be on a playoff high again.
Their outstanding asset is speed; they may well be the fastest thing on skates. A good skating club always has a chance, even against an opponent as well rounded as the Islanders.
Minnesota's big scorers in the playoffs have been newly finesseful winger Steve Payne (12 goals, 9 assists) and his center since their junior days not so long ago, Bobby Smith (6 goals, 14 assists). Both were harvested in a bountiful 1978 amateur draft by General Manager Lou Nanne.
Smith, who has been taking extra shifts after Tim Young hurt a knee, is a 6 ft. 4 in. playmaker with the moves of a man a foot shorter. His reach -- he wears 37 in. shirt sleeves --makes him almost impossible to separate from the puck.
Also combining effectively are Steve Christoff and Neal Broten, linemates for the University of Minnesota's 1979 NCAA championship squad and the victorious 1980 Olympic team.
"It's a big advantage to have played together so much," says Christoff. "We anticipate what each other will do without having to stop and think about it."
Young forward Dino Ciccarelli, the North Stars' answer to "Rocky," scored 18 goals in 32 games after he was brought up from the minor leagues late in the season, and he has set a rookie record for goals in the playoffs with 11, including Minnesota's only hat trick. Ironically, the mark he broke had been set just a year ago by his teammate Christoff, who joined the North Stars after the Olympics and scored eight playoff goals.
The North Stars give away little in goal, with veteran Gilles Meloche and 19 -year-old Don Beaupre, who started in the All-Star Game. In fact, they may be better in the backup category with Beaupre than the Islanders, who traded Chico Resch and will have to rely on relatively untested Roland Melanson if anything happens to Smith.
Craig Hartsburg and Brad Maxwell hold the Minnesota defense together. Says North Star Coach Glen Sonmor, "We will have to be more authoritative physically.We'll have to take people out."
For what it is worth, that was the Rangers' game plan against the awesomely composed Islanders.