The 1979-80 season was a series of peaks and valleys for both Denis Potvin and the New York Islanders. "On November 30 of 1979 (in a game against the Edmonton Oilers), I had the worst injury I ever had as a pro," recalls Potvin with a wince. "I got my thumb broken, had it operated on and didn't come back until March 1. I missed thirty-six games that year and by January 1, 1980, the Islanders were in sixteenth or seventeenth place in the NHL. We were not doing very well as a team."
|The names of two Potvins have been engraved on the Stanley Cup for both 1980 and1981. Denis and brother Jean played together on Long Island in the first two seasons of the Islanders' dynasty. Although he didn't see any playoff action and was relegated to spot duty during the season, Jean contributed enough to have his name forever found on hockey's most cherished prize.
At the beginning of March that season, the skaters from Long Island had a record of twenty-nine wins against twenty-five losses and eight ties. For comparative study, at the same junction one year prior, the Islanders were 39-11-10.
The Islanders made some changes to their line-up that caused dramatic and immediate improvement. "We had Ken Morrow join us from the gold medal-winning (U.S.) Olympic team. Butch Goring joined us at the trade deadline (coming to Long Island from the Kings in exchange for Billy Harris and Dave Lewis) and things started really turning around," the team's captain remembers. The Islanders didn't lose another game to the end of the season, winning eight and tying four to complete the 1979-80 season with a record of 39-28-13. "In the last month of that season, we came together as a team like never before and we just continued," recalls Denis. "We played hard, we fought, we skated hard -- whatever needed to be done."
The Islanders finished the season second to the tough Philadelphia Flyers in the Patrick Division of the NHL, although Philadelphia accumulated 116 points to New York's 91.
In the first playoff series, the Islanders faced the Los Angeles Kings in a best of five series, and handily defeated the Kings three games to one. Denis picked up four assists in the series, helping move his Long Island mates into a best-of-seven series against the Boston Bruins.
On April 17, the Islanders illustrated that they were prepared to do anything to win the Stanley Cup. In Game Two of this second round series, the Islanders went toe-to-toe against the big, bad Bruins. Clark Gillies of the Islanders fought the Bruins' Terry O'Reilly twice in the first period alone. Later, Duane Sutter and Mile Milbury got into a scrap that precipitated a bench-clearing brawl. The Islanders clearly showed that they would not be intimidated in any sense. New York, incidentally, won the contest 5-4 in overtime. The Islanders proceeded to win the series four games to one, with Potvin contributing a goal and an assist.
In the semi-final between the Islanders and Buffalo, New York defeated the New York State rival Sabres four games to two. It was a significant victory for the New York franchise, who with that win, advanced to their first-ever Stanley Cup final.
|Four of the heroes of that first Islanders' championship watch in awe as the banner commemorating their victory is raised to the rafters at the Nassau County Coliseum. From left to right, Bobby Nystrom, Denis Potvin, Clark Gillies and Bryan Trottier revel in their accomplishment. All four would participate in all four of the
Islanders' Stanley Cup wins.
In Game One of the final, taking place May 13 in Philadelphia, Denis Potvin emerged as the star. "Scoring in overtime against Philly was the crowning moment of what was a very difficult year," he admits. His goal at 4:07 of overtime gave the Islanders a one-nothing lead in the final series. It was Potvin's second goal of the game, too.
Game Two saw the Flyers rebound with a decisive 8-3 win, but the Islanders bounced back with a 6-2 victory in Game Three. Potvin collected two goals and two assists in that contest to lead his team to a series lead.
Game Four saw New York topple the Flyers again, this time 5-2. Philadelphia dumped the Islanders 6-3 in Game Five, although Denis earned an assist on a late goal by Stefan Persson.
Then, on May 24, 1980, Bobby Nystrom scored at 7:11 of overtime to give the franchise its first Stanley Cup championship. The final score was 5-4, with Denis Potvin contributing a goal in the first period. Following the final buzzer and amidst massive waves of cheering from the Uniondale fans, captain Potvin skated to centre ice and accepted the Stanley Cup from NHL president John Ziegler.
Amongst those skating around the perimeter of the ice surface with the Stanley Cup held aloft were Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies, Bryan Trottier, Billy Smith and, of course, Denis Potvin all now Honoured Members of the Hockey Hall of Fame. General Manager Bill Torrey and coach Al Arbour are also members of that exalted group, both entered as Builders.
For the New York Islanders, it would be the first of four consecutive Stanley Cup championships, while a 'Drive for Five' in 1984 fell just short. The Islanders won the first three rounds of the playoffs in 1984, but a young, quick Edmonton Oilers team snatched the Stanley Cup from the grasp of the Islanders that spring.
It was a heady time for the New York Islanders and their fans to start that decade. For Denis Potvin, the Stanley Cup championship of 1980 was the pinnacle of an extraordinary career.
Kevin Shea is the Hockey Hall of Fame's Manager of Publishing and Editorial Services.