Experience, defense key factors in Islanders' Stanley Cup sweep
Uniondale, N.Y. — Bring on the 1960 Montreal Canadians! They were Stanley Cup champions for a record fifth straight season, setting a precedent thought safe at least for this century.
It's safe for another year. The New York Islanders won the North American version of hockey's world championship for the fourth time in a row this week, humbling the Edmonton Oilers 4-2 here in the windup Tuesday night.
''Sweep! Sweep! Sweep!'' the Islanders' fans chanted with deafening enthusiasm - and a sweep it was. Edmonton went down in four straight games as a series matching the best offense in the game against the best defense was decided conclusively by defense.
The last play of the last game summed up everything that had gone before.
Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky, the most prolific scorer in history, collected the puck and whirled up ice. He came in alone against Islander goalie Billy Smith, unleashed a laser beam of a shot, and saw Smith stick it aside almost casually.
Gretzky set an overall playoff scoring record of 38 points and he got his chances against the Islanders - but he never scored a goal against them. There was some doubt from the start whether he could dominate in his usual brilliant manner, but surely no one doubted that he could score.
''I tried to help out as much as possible in other ways,'' he said after setting a Stanley Cup record for blow-drying his hair and changing into a shirt and tie. ''Yet, my main job is to put the puck in the net, and I didn't do it.''
Gretzky did miss some opportunities, to be sure, but the fault was hardly all his. On numerous other occasions he made spectacular moves, drew the defense toward him, and drilled pinpoint passes to open teammates only to have them fail to finish off the plays.
''We needed a couple of goals at the right time, and couldn't get them,'' Wayne said. ''The Islanders are a great team, tremendously balanced and disciplined.
''We're so young and there was so much excitement surrounding the finals with the fans and press, maybe we got a little overexcited. We played very well in the first game but couldn't score, and that set the tone for the entire series.''
Smith was named Most Valuable Player for the playoffs - the first goaltender so honored since Philadelphia's Bernie Parent won the award back-to-back in 1974 and 1975. The Islander netminder was superb, too, allowing an average of under three goals a game and coming up with the big saves when they were needed, but if his behavior after the last game is any criterion, he won't be getting any sportsmanship awards for a while.
Billy's first remarks after receiving the MVP honor were to point out that his apparent injury in the third period, which resulted in a five-minute Edmonton spearing penalty, was faked. He contended Gretzky had faked a similar injury in the second game.
Then he went on churlishly about the Canadian press and how, by and large, it delighted in launching ''cheap shots'' at him for his aggressive use of his stick.
Finally he said, as MVP selectees predictably say, that several other Islanders deserved the trophy as much as he did. He specifically mentioned speedy Bob Bourne, the team's leading scorer for the playoffs.
In this case an MVP was correct, as magnificently as Smith himself played.
''I was called on more this year than the last three years,'' Smith added. ''But my task is a lot easier when we're a goal or two goals ahead.''
The Islanders, surely the best team in sports today, boast several superstars. Edmonton coach Glen Sather thought defenseman and captain Denis Potvin played overwhelming hockey and center Bryan Trottier, who won almost every faceoff he took against Gretzky, wasn't far behind.
''They didn't let us do the things we're used to doing,'' Sather summed up. ''If I had to single out one thing that made the difference, it would be the Islanders' patience.''
The veteran Islanders are experienced enough to wait for an opponent's mistake and then quickly capitalize on it.
The first goal Tuesday night was a good example. The Oilers misplayed the puck behind their own net while a man short in the opening period and Trottier abruptly scored. In less than two stunning minutes, John Tonelli and Mike Bossy also scored, and the game effectively was over. For Bossy it was a record fifth game-winning goal in this season's playoffs, and it moved him ahead of Gordie Howe into third place on the all-time playoff goals chart with 69, behind Maurice Richard and Jean Beliveau.
Edmonton made it interesting with two second-period goals but defenseman Ken Morrow's empty netter at the end - his second such goal of the series - assured the home team its fourth straight cup.
Ironically, the only other team that ever had a shot at Montreal's 1956-60 record was the latter-day Canadiens' team which won four in a row from 1976 through 1979. It was the Islanders who ended that run in 1980 with the first triumph in their own streak, and now, of course, they stand on the threshold of tying the all-time mark next year.
Bring on the 1960 Canadiens!