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Islanders Underdog Moments, Part I: From an expansion eureka to a sweet Stanley Cup

The first of a two-installment look at the Islanders’ most memorable underdog moments.

New York Rivals Shake Hands Photo by Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images

This is Underdog Week at SB Nation, which, for an Islanders fan, is a daunting proposition. This team’s history is so rife with underdog moments and overcoming impossible odds that singling out one or two just doesn’t seem fair. We love discussing the ancient history and have covered the modern history as it has unfolded. So which do we look at for this special theme week?

How about all of it?

This is Part I of a two-installment look at the Islanders’ most memorable underdog moments. I’m sure I’ll leave a few off, but whether you’re a longtime fan that saw them happen or a new fan that wants to better understand this team’s history, this list is sure to make you marvel at how the Islanders have managed to make the impossible (or, at least, highly unlikely) possible.

Expansion Islanders inexplicably defeat Bruins, January 18, 1973

The inaugural Islanders set NHL marks for woefulness, finishing with just 12 wins on the season. At one point, they had lost a dozen straight games before a date in Boston with the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins. A rout was expected, but not the one that happened: the Islanders won the game 9-7, stunning the Boston Garden both on an off the home team’s bench. The visitors were up 5-0 after the first period, then went back-and-forth before hanging on for the victory.

There weren’t a lot of highlights of that first Islanders season, but this game stands out as the best of them.

“We got caught with our pants down. It was embarrassing, really. Here we are, the champions of the NHL, a so-called powerhouse, and these guys come in to our building after losing 12 games in a row and whip our butts. It was one of the craziest games I’ve ever seen.” - Bruins center Phil Esposito, from The New York Islanders: Countdown to a Dynasty by Barry Wilner.

Playoff premiering Islanders stun rival Rangers in overtime, April 11, 1975

Three years after their founding, and under coach Al Arbour, the Islanders made the playoffs for the first time. Their first opponents were their closest rivals, the New York Rangers, a veteran team who expected to contend for the Stanley Cup.

The Islanders taking Game 1, 3-2, was surprising. The Rangers made up for it with an 8-3 shellacking in Game 2.

Then came the deciding Game 3. The Islanders blew a three-goal third period lead, sending the game to overtime. Just 11 seconds into the extra period, new addition J.P. Parise scored on Rangers goalie Eddie Giacomin to shock all of New York and send the Islanders to the second round.

“They could not believe what had taken place. You had people coming back from the hot dog stand, rushing to see what the roar was, and they couldn’t believe it! People were telling them, ‘It’s over. They scored.’ It was unbelievable.” - Defenseman Jean Potvin, from Dynasty: The Oral History of the New York Islanders 1972-1984 by Greg Prato.

Islanders stage epic comeback, beat Penguins after being down 3-0, April 26, 1975

Not content to rest on their laurels after dispatching the Rangers in Round 1, the Islanders mounted an even more incredible story in Round 2.

Okay, so they did rest a little at first, dropping the first three games of their series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. But then Arbour told his team at practice, “If there’s anybody here doesn’t think we can win this thing, please just take off your equipment and leave.” (buy this shirt!)

No one left. The Islanders then won the next four games in a row to take the series and become the first NHL team since 1942 to accomplish such a feat. Pittsburgh scored a total of four goals in the final four games, and Islanders goalie Chico Resch locked the series down with a 1-0 win in Game 7. He also had a little help from two friends.

“It was in the seventh game when in one shift, they got two goal posts. It’s funny, then you start feeling invincible. Feeling fortunate and getting the lucky bounces in hockey is almost as good as playing well. Because you just know that playing well or not, things are going to bounce your way.” - Glenn “Chico” Resch, from Dynasty: The Oral History of the New York Islanders 1972-1984 by Greg Prato.

Feisty Islanders force Game 7 against Flyers after being down 3-0, May 12, 1975

After their crazy series against the Penguins, even the Islanders expected the Flyers to wipe the ice with them. Denis Potvin said of the playoff run at the time, “Had it stopped there, it would have been plenty.”

But incredibly, they almost did the trick again, coming back from 3-0 to force a seventh game against Pennsylvania’s other NHL team.

A 2-1 Islanders win in Game 6 set up a potentially historic Game 7 in Philadelphia. Before the game, the Flyers had anthem singer Kate Smith rev up the crowd by singing “God Bless America” from the ice inside the Islanders crease. Islanders captain Ed Westfall presented Smith with flowers in the hope of counteracting her mojo, but a very early goal from center ice by Gary Dornhoefer immediately took the wind out of their sails. They ended up losing the game 4-1 and the series 4-3, but their ultimate underdog run made the hockey world stand up and take notice.

“Chico was really upset about the fact that [Smith] was in his net. It really disturbed him.” - coach Al Arbour, from Dynasty: The Oral History of the New York Islanders 1972-1984 by Greg Prato.

Islanders complete destiny, defeat Flyers for first Stanley Cup, May 24, 1980

The Cinderella run by the 1974-75 Islanders was the first major step in the franchise’s evolution from expansion doormats to championship contenders. In the next four springs, they would come up short of the Stanley Cup Final - twice as underdogs to the dynastic Montreal Canadiens and then as favorites getting upset by inferior Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers squads.

When they finally reached the Final in 1980, the Islanders were the underdogs again, this time to the Philadelphia Flyers, two-time champions and three-time finalists who went 35 games in the regular season without a loss. As usual, nothing came easy.

The Islanders won Game 1 in overtime, were blown out of Game 2, then blew out the Flyers in Games 3 and 4. A loss in Philly in Game 5 sent the series back to Long Island for Game 6. And a loss there would mean a Game 7 back to the Spectrum and almost certain doom. Flyers coach Pat Quinn even needled the Islanders by referring to “their old bugaboo” of choking away playoff series.

Leading 4-2 heading into the third period, the Islanders allowed the Flyers to tie the game. But in Nassau Coliseum the locker room, every Islander wanted to be the hero. In the end, it was Bob Nystrom, a career Islander from their very first season, who scored at 7:11 of overtime to bring the franchise its first Stanley Cup and silence all the demons of series past.

“We had to do it the hard way. For the past three years we’ve been doing things the hard way. Did you really think we’d change now?” - Bob Nystrom, Sports Illustrated, June 2, 1980.

In Part II, we’ll look at more Islanders underdog stories including all the ones you’re definitely thinking about right now. Yup. Even that one.