Winning the Stanley Cup two seasons in a row is a rare feat these days. Before the Penguins beat the Predators in six games, the previous team to take back-to-back Cups were the 1998 Red Wings, a fact beaten to death by writers and broadcasters ever since the final started. As much as we may hate them, that deserves a ton of respect (and if you see an irritable, bearded man stalking the streets of Eastern Pennsylvania today, it might be our own Mark).
But a generation or two ago, it wasn’t unusual for a team to win two (or more) championships in consecutive years. Pittsburgh, of course, has done it before in the early 1990’s, the Oilers went back-to-back twice, the Flyers’ two Cups came in consecutive years and the Islanders and Canadiens had dynasty runs of four straight titles.
On May 21st, 1981, the Islanders beat the upstart Minnesota North Stars 5-1 in Game 5 of the final for their second Cup in a row. They’d go on to win two more with another appearance in a final. But at the time, the victory over Minnesota established beyond a shadow of a doubt that the guys from Long Island were the top dogs in the NHL.
Sparked by Butch Goring, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs, New York built a lead of 3-0 before the North Stars were able to score. The Islanders, in fact, dominated from start to finish and probably earned the respect they felt was missing for much of the season.
“It means last year was no fluke,” said Bryan Trottier. “And we’re still hungry. It’s a great feeling.”
Minnesota had a mediocre regular season, going 35-28-17 for 87 points. But young forwards Steve Payne, Bobby Smith and Dino Ciccarelli got hot in the playoffs and found themselves in a final against a completely different type of opponent.
But, in losing the final series to the New York Islanders, the North Stars at least had the satisfaction of losing to a team that they recognize as a hockey powerhouse.
'They (the Islanders) have an excellent hockey team,' said Minnesota defenseman and captain Paul Shmyr. 'As far as I'm concerned, the better team won.'
Goring took the Conn Smythe with 10 goals and 10 assists in 18 games that Spring. In a delightful profile from the time by Sports Illustrated’s EM Swift, “Old Country Butch” comes off as a breath of fresh air for an Islanders team that had settled into a routine of being lights out in the regular season before choking in the playoffs.
Even in uniform, he is an individualist. He wears No. 91 - the number he had in L.A., 19, is Bryan Trottier’s - and is the only player in the league to use buckled stake boots instead of laceups. Goring’s helmets are the same bowl-shaped ones he wore as a boy but to him what they lack in protection they make up for in luck. Put it all together with his unusually tenacious, crablike forechecking style, and you have one odd hockey player. But he can play. “We knew what to expect from their dominant guys, [Denis] Potvin, [Mike] Bossy, Trottier,” said North Stars coach Glen Sonmor after Game 3, “but I don’t think we were prepared for so much offense out of Goring.”
Also, there’s this part that makes me both chuckle and shudder:
The Islanders, near bankruptcy two years ago and still debt-ridden, can ill-afford a bidding war with heavily financed teams like the Rangers and the Kings. Nor can they afford to lose the likes of Bossy and Potvin, both of whom are likely to for upward of $750,000 per year. To add to Torrey’s potential problems, next year coach Al Arbour’s contract expires. The NHL’s most respected coach and highly coveted, he, too, may leave, which would release some of the Islanders - Potvin and Bourne, especially - from the bond of loyalty they feel for him.
You can watch the last few seconds of the game here along with the entire on ice Cup chaos and interviews. Holy cow, there are a ton of just fans just jumping the glass and running onto the ice. DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS.
Winning the Stanley Cup is an amazing accomplishment. Winning back-to-back Cups is something very, very few people get to see. Congrats to the Penguins on pulling off eight straight playoff series victories.
Now, let’s see if they can win 11 more.