In Part I of this SB Nation Underdog Week special presentation, we looked at games and playoff series in which the Islanders defied the odds up to and including their first Stanley Cup championship in 1980.
Thing is, the franchise didn’t stop there. The Islanders have a history of putting together these incredible underdog moments, a tradition that continues to this day.
Islanders sweep Oilers for fourth straight Cup, upset all of Canada, May 17, 1983
It’s a stretch to say the Islanders were “underdogs” exactly against the Edmonton Oilers in the 1983 Stanley Cup Final. They just had a ton of people rooting against them.
Sure, the Islanders had won three straight Cups and 15 straight playoff series. But all of Canada was clearly pulling for the Boys on the Bus. The Oilers had led the league in goals in the regular season, then averaged six goals a game throughout the playoffs in easy series wins against Winnipeg, Calgary and Chicago. They also had Hart and Art Ross Trophy winner Wayne Gretzky, who led the league in goals, assists and points with never-before-seen totals.
Too bad for them that the Islanders had other plans. The old champs swept the hot shots in four straight, with goalie Billy Smith taking home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Smith held the Oilers to just six goals in the four games, stymieing Gretzky and company with his pads, slashing them with his stick and cutting them with his mouth. “Two can play that game,” never sounded so satisfying.
Edmonton would get its revenge the following season but not before the Islanders showed them what being champions was all about.
“We heard from a lot of different sources that Edmonton was unbeatable. Maybe because of that we prepared ourselves better mentally for this series than we had for any series since winning our first Cup.” - Islanders forward Duane Sutter, Sports Illustrated.
Undermanned Islanders shock Penguins in Patrick Division finals, May 14, 1993
Technically, the Islanders upset the Capitals in Round 1, beating the team that finished six points ahead of them in the Patrick Division. But three overtime wins and a tremendous performance from center Pierre Turgeon were too much for Washington to handle.
(Technically, the Islanders also upset Washington in 1987, when the second-seeded Caps fell to the third-seeded Islanders on Kelly Hrudey’s 75 saves and Pat LaFontaine’s game-winner in the fourth overtime of the “Easter Epic.” But we digress.)
After Turgeon was felled by a vicious blindside hit from the Capitals’ Dale Hunter, almost no one gave the Islanders a chance in hell in Round 2. Their opponents were the Pittsburgh Penguins, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions who had a roster loaded with offensive talent up and down the lineup.
The strategy for Al Arbour and the Islanders was simple: never back down. The scrappy, workmanlike Isles got right in faces of Mario Lemieux and friends and simply refused to let them take over the series no matter how many rings they had.
The Islanders won Game 1, lost Games 2 and 3, then won a 6-5 barn burner in Game 4. A 7-5 win in Game 6 sent the deciding game back to Pittsburgh. The Islanders blew a 3-1 lead in the third period of Game 7 and had to go to overtime yet again.
That was where Czech import David Volek forever wrote his name into Islanders lore, burying a feed from Ray Ferraro behind Penguins goalie Tom Barrasso about five minutes in to give New York the series. The defeat derailed a possible Penguins dynasty and sent the Islanders to their last (so far) appearance in the conference finals.
“All day long, people were stopping us on the streets and telling us to get the golf clubs out, we were done. There were numerous times in this series when people said it was over. We were shown no respect, we were told all along that we should just be happy to be here. That was a good motivator for us.” - Islanders forward Ray Ferraro, the Associated Press.
Patchwork Islanders clinch unlikely playoff berth, April 23, 2013
Few expected much out of the Islanders heading into the lockout-shortened 2013 season. A roster of young, improving players and mostly budget-friendly veterans didn’t strike anyone as a playoff team. And after an 8-win first month of the season, they didn’t look like one, either.
But February was a different story. Wins started to get picked up more consistently and other teams fell by the wayside. Goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who a season and a half earlier tried to get out of even becoming an Islander, turned in some spectacular performances. Before anyone knew it, the Islanders were in a real playoff hunt. For the first time in six years, picking up points late in the season meant more than worsening their lottery odds.
They finally clinched in a disappointing way, dropping a shootout in Raleigh to the Hurricanes. But they got the point they needed, and the rag tag roster was excited to hit the postseason for the first time as a group.
The Islanders would lose in the first round to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games in a series that’s still fondly remembered. A few more penalties killed would have made a huge difference for the darkhorse Islanders. But that spring was the most exciting one their fans had seen in decades.
“We got our game going, and we got contributions from everybody and started to figure out what it takes to win.” - Islanders center John Tavares, the Associated Press.
Islanders enter Round 2 as Tavares and Greiss declaw Panthers, April 24, 2016
The Islanders had gone a preposterous 23 years without winning a playoff series (barely making the playoffs at all didn’t help). Even having a 100-point season was no guarantee of getting an easy ride to the second round. The 2015-16 Islanders hit that mark for the second straight season, but were mostly buoyed by great goaltending from newcomer Thomas Greiss and some balanced scoring.
In Round 1, they faced the Florida Panthers, who won the Atlantic Division and were making their own long-awaited return to the playoffs. Led by goalie Roberto Luongo, budding star Aleksander Barkov and the legendary Jaromir Jagr, Florida was loaded for a long run and were considered the favorites by oddmakers if not also hockey fans.
Greiss got the starting nod and played out of his mind, as did captain John Tavares, who seemed to figure into every Islanders goal. The teams alternated wins for the first four games, then the Islanders won back-to-back double overtime affairs, one on a goal by barely-known AHL call up Alan Quine and the other from Tavares himself. That goal sent Brooklyn’s Barclays Center into an absolute frenzy as the Islanders excised two decades worth of playoff failure.
They would lose to the Tampa Bay Lightning in a five game series that was closer than it appeared (for the first four games, at least). But Tavares’s wraparound goal and his leap into the arms of defenseman Thomas Hickey right afterward are indelible memories for the current generation of Islanders fans.
“You can’t even really process it. I’m glad it went in because my leg starting cramping in that pile. I’m glad I didn’t have to skate back down. It was obviously just amazing to look around and just see all the orange and blue. Just incredible.” - Tavares, NHL.com.
Trotz-led Islanders rise from ashes to make playoffs, 2019
The Tavares era produced two Islanders underdog moments. But the year after he left via free agency provided perhaps the team’s best stand against the odds since 1993.
Left behind by basically every hockey and sports writer in North America (not to mention a large swath of fans, including their own), the Islanders coalesced around new coach Barry Trotz and his focus on team defense. They also got a major boost from goalie Robin Lehner, who signed a one-year contract after leaving rehab the previous summer.
Incredibly, the Islanders went from giving up a record-high amount of goals to being the stingiest team in the league. Lehner and Greiss would split the Jennings Trophy for giving up the least goals against, and Lehner would be a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. The team’s 103 points were the most they had earned in a season since the dynasty days.
But it was Trotz who gave the franchise an entirely new identity following the heartbreaking loss of their captain, proving that, “There’s more to the Islanders and than just one man.” They clinched a playoff berth with a blowout win over the Sabres in late March, Lehner’s old team, and threw the kind of party that Nassau Coliseum hadn’t been experienced in quite some time.
“I said it early in the year, if you want to go somewhere quick, you go alone. If you want to go somewhere far, you go as a group. They decided to go as a group.” - Barry Trotz.
Islanders complete unlikely sweep of Penguins, April 16, 2019
Just making the playoffs in 2019 would have been amazing. But, once again, the Islanders didn’t stop there...
Even having home ice advantage in a playoff series for the first time in 30-something years wasn’t enough to keep the Islanders from being listed as underdogs. Their opponents in the first round would be the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were only a year removed from winning a second straight Cup and had a roster loaded with championship experience.
And yet, it was the Islanders that came out raring to go. They took a back-and-forth Game 1 4-3 in overtime on Josh Bailey’s greasy goal, then won the next three straight allowing just one goal in each. Lehner and the Islanders’ defenders locked down on Pittsburgh’s talented forwards, and Jordan Eberle, previously a playoff pariah, came up with clutch goal after clutch goal.
The result was the Islanders’ first sweep since that 1983 Stanley Cup final mentioned at the top of this list and an absolute wipe out of a frequent playoff opponent and longtime rival. The sweep of the Penguins was unexpected and glorious, and the two weeks between the end of that series and the beginning of the next (in which the Islanders were unfortunately swept by the Carolina Hurricanes, who were then swept themselves by the Boston Bruins), may have been the most relaxing and enjoyable of an Islanders fan’s life.
Not only did the sweep show that the rumors of the franchise’s demise were greatly exaggerated, it also proved that the Islanders’ ingrained-from-inception knack for coming up with huge wins against long odds hasn’t been totally lost.
“We believe in ourselves. We pretty well just have our fanbase and our families and this group that believe in us. That’s all we need. We really don’t need anyone else’s validation.” - Islanders forward Matt Martin.