Isles honoring the first champs 

Isles honoring the first champs

The Nassau Coliseum used to be a place where a dynasty reigned. On Saturday, it will be once again ? at least for a night.

The New York Islanders are honoring their 1979-80 team, which brought the first of four consecutive Stanley Cups to Long Island. General Manager Bill Torrey, coach Al Arbour and most of the players on the Isles' first championship team will be on hand for the festivities.

In today's era of rapid roster turnover, it's hard to believe that 16 players were actually on hand for all four of the Isles' championships. And given the team's struggles during the past decade, the night is a reminder that, a generation ago, the Islanders were among the greatest teams in NHL history.
Ironically, of the four Cup teams, the one that launched the dynasty was the weakest during the regular season. The Islanders had dethroned the Montreal Canadiens as regular-season champs in 1978-79, but lost a bitter semifinals series to their archrivals, the New York Rangers. The Isles spent much of 1979-80 playing as if they were shell-shocked from the previous spring.

"There were calls for Al's head. There were signs saying 'Fire Al," former Islanders goaltender Glenn "Chico" Resch told MSG Network Thursday. "There were calls to break up the club. We really weren't playing together. We had to confront our demons -- to find out why we weren't winning."

Torrey had resisted the temptation to break up the team after the 1979 playoff loss. But he knew that despite having the best forward line in the NHL -- the "Trio Grande" of Clark Gillies, Bryan Trottier, and Mike Bossy -- he needed another consistent threesome to take some of the pressure off his top unit. He found what he was looking for at the trading deadline, when he sent two regulars, forward Billy Harris and defenseman Dave Lewis, to Los Angeles for center Butch Goring.

The deal for Goring was made possible by the emergence of Ken Morrow, who arrived on Long Island with the Olympic gold medal he won as a member of the "Miracle On Ice" team. "I couldn't have made that trade without Kenny," Torrey remembered years later. "The fact that he proved he could play in the NHL right away let me trade Dave Lewis, who was a good defenseman. I needed a second-line center, and Goring fit the bill."

Goring was a perfect fit on Long Island. He added speed, offense, defense, penalty-killing skills, and grit.

"You've got to have two legitimate offensive centers, so the opposition can't shut down one line," Resch told MSG. "Getting Butch was the catalyst we needed."

The Islanders were unbeatable after getting Goring, going 8-0-4 in their final 12 games and blitzing through the first three rounds of the playoffs to make the finals for the first time. Their opponents, the Philadelphia Flyers, were coming off a season in which they had won the regular-season title and set an NHL record with a 35-game unbeaten streak.

But the Islanders stunned Spectrum fans by scoring in overtime to win the opener, 3-2. The teams split the next four games, giving the Islanders the opportunity to win the title at home.

"We knew it wasn't going to be easy," Resch said. "We almost lost. We led 4-2 after two periods, but the Flyers scored twice in the third period to force overtime."

The came the most famous play in Islanders history: Lorne Henning broke up a play at center ice and sent John Tonelli and Bob Nystrom in on a 2-on-1 break. Nystrom chipped Tonelli's pass into the open side of the net at 7:11 of OT, and a dynasty was born.

And what was the feeling after the game-winner?

"More relief than excitement," Resch remembered.

On Saturday night, the excitement will be there.

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