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Last 3-0 Series Comeback: The 1975 New York Islanders

With two teams trailing 3-0 in NHL conference semifinal series (a disappointing contrast to the first round), the 1975 New York Islanders will get their share of mentions for the next few days until the Red Wings and Flyers are officially put out to pasture.

Those spunky Islanders, in their third season and first-ever playoffs, became the modern standard for "the last time a team came back from a 3-0 deficit" -- though I hear some baseball team did it in the '00s, but...I mean, it's baseball -- and the crazy thing is the Isles nearly did it twice that year. They shocked the Penguins in the victory that put them in the history books, not even trailing for a second from Game 4 through Game 7. But in the next round, they fell behind 3-0 to the Flyers before taking the eventual champions to Game 7, where Kate Smith sang their final song.

We have a few readers who were alive (not me) and conscious for that wild year, so this post is a good chance to share any memories you have or stories you were told. if you have a tale, let 'em rip in comments. The coverage of this historic comeback is surprisingly sparse. [Update: Here are a few fresh quotes from Al Arbour to Chris Botta at FanHouse.]

Here's the only bit of video from the series I've seen on the freetubes -- a Clark Gillies-Bob Paradise fight from, if the date is correct, Game 7 in Pittsburgh:

What follows is some of the available history about how they did it, as well as some other factoids from that stunning playoff year that hinted at the championships that would come five years later:

The 11-Second Parise Goal

You know you're around a longtime Islanders fan when "the 11-second goal" or "the Parise goal" is shorthand for "I was there when it began." The third-year expansion Islanders hadn't competed well enough to create much of a rivalry yet with the Rangers, but toward the end of 1974-75 that started to change. It came to a head in that year's best-of-three preliminary round series where the Blueshirts were heavy favorites. The Islanders shocked the Short Island Smurfs in Game 1 at the Garden, 3-2. The Rangers pushed back with an 8-3 rout at the Coliseum in Game 2.

In the decisive Game 3, the Isles staked a 3-0 lead (there it is again) only to blow it in the third to force OT. Contemporary reports had Billiy Smith standing on his head in the dying minutes just to get them that far.

The description of what followed is from Stan Fischler's 1976 book, "The Triumphant Islanders: Hockey's New Dynasty" (price tag: $4.95!). Eleven seconds from the opening faceoff of OT was all it took. I think you'll enjoy Fischler's "parlance of the times" prose -- and a really odd analogy for Rod Gilbert's reaction in defeat:

The puck skimmed along the boards to goalie Ed Giacomin's left near the corner of the rink.

The Rangers burly left wing Steve Vickers got there first but he seemed to hesitate and, before Vickers could recover, Jude Drouin pounced on the loose puck like a starved tiger finding a piece of raw meat. At that precise moment team J.P. Parise camped in front of Giacomin, wildly hoping for a passout.

Drouin wasn't especially particular about his moves. He peripherally detected Parise and just whipped the puck in the direction of the goal crease, hoping for the best. Rangers defenseman Brad Park sensed trouble and desperately tried to envelop Parise in his arms in front of the net.

Park was a fatal split second too late. Drouin's passout moved like a crazed pinball, from the corner to the center and then -- POP! -- it was deflected by Parise past goalie Giacomin and into the net as Park pulled down Parise and Rod Gilbert circled in front of the net like a Civil Aeronautics Board surveyor assessing a plane crash.

It was over just like that.

>>"The Triumphant Islanders: Hockey's New Dynasty" (Fischler, 1976, p. 58)

The Great 3-0 Comeback over the Penguins

Probably feeling pretty good about themselves after getting the upper hand on their older brothers for the first (of many) time(s), the Islanders moved on to face the Penguins and fell into a hole immediately. Games 1 and 2 in Pittsburgh were 5-4 and 3-1 for the Pens. In Game 3 on Long Island, the Penguins rode a third-period surge for a 6-4 win. All looked lost.

It had been 33 years since the last (and only) time an NHL team came back from a 3-0 series deficit to win. That was the famous 1942 Maple Leafs who did it in the Cup finals over Detroit.

Here's Fischler's description of conditions entering Game 4, when the Pens would surely complete the sweep and create a playoff Battle of Pennsylvania in the next round:

The Islanders goaltending has been weak while Pittsburgh goalie Gary Inness frustrates them time and again with exceptional saves. All-Star defenseman Denis Potvin is playing with a bruised left thigh, and right wing Bobby Nystrom is in a slump. He has yet to score in the playoffs after scoring 27 goals during the regular season.

... To inspire the club, Al Arbour makes a change in goal, inserting Glenn Resch who has not seen action since the second game of the Ranger series. With the capacity crowd at Nassau Coliseum chanting "Chico, Chico!" and with signs urging the Islanders to Souvenez-vous les Maple Leafs (Remember the Maple Leafs), the Islanders win, 3-1. The New York defense keeps the Penguins out of the slot and Resch turns back 27 of 28 Penguin shots.

>>Fischler, p. 62

(Today, "remember the Maple Leafs" means something a bit different to Isles fans, who know that "What Would Gary Roberts Do?" means "Go take a zone-long run at a defenseman and check him into the boards from behind.")

The psychology of a seven-game series is great, isn't it? As the higher seed who failed to close out a sweep, at least the Penguins could finish out the series on home ice in Game 5. No sweat. But Resch shines again and the Isles take Game 5, 4-2. The series returns to Long Island. Suddenly, the Penguins are facing hostile fans again, and if they don't win Game 6, what was once a cakewalk becomes a one-game, winner-take-all in front of nervous home fans.

After the Islanders take Game 6 4-1, it's back to Pittsburgh for that fateful game. In a series that averaged more than six goals per game in the first six games, the tight, careful play of Game 7 would yield only one.

As these unreal moments always tend to go, the Islanders probably wouldn't have pulled it off if not for three friendly goal posts in the opening minutes. Those posts were so good to the Isles that night that the rookie Resch literally kissed them.

The game remained scoreless until 5:18 left in the third -- remember, Pittsburgh hadn't even led a game in the 235 minutes since Game 4 -- when the captain, an original Islander, the wise veteran and two-time Cup winner from the Bruins, Ed Westfall backhanded in the only goal the Islanders needed.

The Penguins had suffered the unthinkable. The islanders had pulled off the impossible. And for the next four decades and counting, broadcast and print coverage of every North American pro sports series that goes to 3-0 flashes "Toronto Maple Leafs - 1942, New York Islanders - 1975" as a familiar sign of hope or hopelessness for fans who are about to see their season end.

*  *  *

The Statement Year Ends in Philly

In the Cup semifinals, as mentioned the Islanders came back from a 3-0 series deficit again to force Game 7 in Philadelphia. After Game 3, with the Islanders down 3-0 for the second series in a row, Al Arbour joked to his team: "O.K., we've got them where we want them now."

"I can't believe this," Flyers captain Bobby Clarke said after Game 6, when the Coliseum crowd was so loud that NBC broadcasters couldn't hear each other.

But it ended there. The Flyers brought out lucky charm Kate Smith to sing "God Bless America" right in Resch's crease, which -- if you can believe this -- threw the rookie Resch off his pre-game routine. From a New York Times look back on October 22, 2004:

Resch had an elaborate pregame ritual, Arbour said, and Smith's presence "really threw Chico off." "He wasn't in his routine," Arbour said.

Resch agreed.

"She was singing right in my crease," Resch, a television analyst for the Devils, said from his home in Minnesota. "I could have dropped her if I wanted to. I should have, I guess."

Gary Dornhoefer scored on a long shot past Resch just 19 seconds into the game. The Flyers won 4-1.

Said Andre St. Laurent after the wild ride ended: "We know we can do it now, and a lot more teams in the NHL will have respect for us."

Yeah, you could say that.