The New York Islanders will be taking on a major new opponent next season: posterity.
They're already the only American-based team to win three straight Stanley Cups, a height they achieved Sunday night by stopping the mismatched Vancouver Canucks 3-1 for a four-game sweep of the finals.
Now their major goal is to catch or surpass the record-setting Montreal teams of yesteryear, the only ones to put together longer reigns.
The Canadiens, led by the legendary likes of Maurice Richard, Doug Harvey, Jacques Plante and Jean Beliveau, won the cup five times in a row from 1956 through 1960. Montreal also holds the next best streak of four straight from 1976 through '79, years memorable for Ken Dryden's goaltending, Guy Lafleur's scoring feats, and a brilliant defense led by Larry Robinson and Serge Savard. Until this year the only other team to win even as many as three straight cups was Toronto, which accomplished the feat in 1947-49 and again in 1962-64.
The Islanders no longer duck the word ''dynasty.''
Says Mike Bossy, voted the Most Valuable Player in the playoffs after scoring 17 goals, ''We're still a relatively young team, young enough that we take nothing for granted. Only three years ago people were saying we couldn't come through under pressure. That isn't so long ago we don't remember. If we avoid injuries and keep everybody under contracts, we should continue to win, because we work hard and we're well organized.''
Elaborates Bryan Trottier, leading playoff scorer with 29 points and like Bossy a mere 25 years old, ''Winning three Stanley Cups in a row comes down to one thing -- Al Arbour's system and how well we execute it. We have very good talent, sure, but we win because we play Al's way so confidently now. We're all believers. We know that if we execute his plans, we'll be successful. It's that simple.
''His system is just basic, fundamental hockey. Most of it is played in straight lines. We move the puck out of our end in certain ways, we forecheck at the other end in certain patterns. We kill penalties well, we have a good power play, and we have a good goalie in Billy Smith as the backbone to everything.''
In short, the Islanders have it all, and Coach Arbour never lets them rest on their reputations.
Says Trottier, ''In the recent past we lost when everyone expected us to win easily, and there are still quite a few players on the roster who were here when we first became contenders. They know a club can win when it's not really supposed to win. What that teaches you is that there's no such thing in this game as a sure thing. When a team has been through as much to get to the top as we have, you don't let up, even against a club like Vancouver that finished 41 points behind us this season.''
In point of amazing fact, this is just the Islanders' 10th year in existence, and halfway through their growth period they were prime candidates for bankruptcy. Then Bill Torrey arrived as general manager, put the books in order, and began building, well, a dynasty.
The National Hockey League's new division-oriented schedule led to an anticlimactic last round after the Islanders defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and Quebec Nordiques. Arbour's troops won their last nine playoff games, exhibiting a solid, workmanlike defensive style.
Says Bob Nystrom, ''Maybe we didn't score as many goals as everyone expected, but we gave up fewer than expected in a high-scoring league. That's better than having it the other way around.''
Goaltender Smith was virtually invincible. He broke his own record for victories by a goalie in the playoffs with 15 and shut out the Canucks at Vancouver in the third game, which was as pivotal as anything in this one-sided series could get.
''I've never considered myself a top goaltender, just a pressure goaltender, '' he says. ''I love the intensity that comes with the playoffs. I love to hear the fans screaming and yelling. I bear down better.
''It's terrific being part of a complete team like ours. We never think we're out of a game. That's how unbelievable this bunch is. I can't even remember the last time we thought we were out of a game.''
The Islanders got a chance to demonstrate this quality during their one close call in these playoffs. It was the opening best-of-five series, and the Penguins had surprised everyone by winning two games and then taking a 3-1 lead with less than six minutes to play in the decisive fifth contest. The Islanders refused to get rattled, however, scoring with 5:27 remaining, keeping up the pressure until they tied the count with 2:21 to go, then eventually winning in overtime.
Smith's counterpart, Richard Brodeur of Vancouver, a former Islander, was heroic in defeat, it should be said. He carried the Canucks to the finals, and he kept them from being embarrassed by the Islanders.
The fourth game was 1-1 after the opening period, Brodeur having allowed Butch Goring's spectacular backhand goal but nothing more. In the second period, the Canucks tried to rough up the Islanders, as they had through much of the series, and were hoisted on the petard of their own penalties.
Bossy quickly pulled the trigger twice to score power-play goals, and that was the difference.
A team cannot play clutch and grab hockey against the Islanders, because the Islanders clutch the opportunities and grab insurmountable leads. Trying to knock them down is like trying to beat the enemy in Pac Man. They just keep coming.
They are well on their way to becoming a dynasty, and if their routine dispatching of Vancouver was less than memorable, at least the best team of all is still where it was expected to be all along: looking ahead to historic confrontations with posterity.