For the first time in five years Montreal is out of the picture, but despite the absence of all that mystique and tradition, the 1980 Stanley Cup finals between Philadelphia and the New York Islanders loom as an exciting and fascinating matchup in their own right.
The Flyers bring some tradition of their own to the best-of-seven series opening here tonight, having won the cup in both 1974 and '75. They still have many key players from those glory days, too, and the veterans have blended perfectly with an influx of talented youngsters to produce a team which set a National Hockey League record of 35 consecutive games without a loss this past winter en route to the regular season championship.
That looks like a tough combination to beat, but if any team can do it, New York just may be the one. Unlike last year when they won the regular season title only to fold in the playoffs, the Islanders started slowly this time, surged late in the campaign, and seem to have played that old Montreal trick of reaching their peak at just the right moment. The Islanders have incentive, too , trying to win not only the first cup in their own eight- year history but the first for any New York team in 40 years. And last but not least, they have the "away ice advantage!"
Don't laugh. The Islanders, like all teams, may prefer to play in the friendly and familiar surroundings of their own arena, but in this year's playoffs they have been a much tougher opponent on enemy ice.
"We have won every big game we've played so far," says sparkplug center Butch Goring -- but whether by coincidence or not, it happens that except for the clinching semifinal victory over Buffalo every one of those key contests came on the road.
It started in the preliminary round, when the Islanders were upset at home by Los Angeles, thus creating a "must win" situation on the road. They responded by winning both games in LA, closing out the Kings 3-1 in that best-of-five mini-series.
In every series since then, their foes have started out with the so-called "home ice advantage," only to see the Islanders quickly reverse the situation. They stunned the Bruins three times in Boston en route to winning that series 4- 1, then started the semifinals with two straight wins at Buffalo -- a shock from which the Sabres never recovered.
Overall their playoff record is 4-3 at the Coliseum and 7-1 on the road. So much for the home ice advantage.
The Flyers' situation is somewhat different: against a much easier series of opponents (the result of their first place finish), they have pretty well dominated their playoff foes regardless of the site, posting marks of 7- 1 at home and 4-1 on the road.
Philadelphia still has such established stars as Bobby Clarke, Reggie Leach, Rick MacLeish, Bill Barber, and Jim Watson, while woven in among them now are such younger standouts as Kenny Linseman (this season's team-leading scorer), Brian Propp, Paul Holmgren, and Mel Bridgman.
The goaltending hero of those earlier triumphs, Bernie Parent, is now retired , so there's a drop-off there even though Pete Peeters and Phil Myre have done an adequate job. And Clarke, now in his 11th NHL season, may be a step slower and no longer the perpetual motion, 40-minutes-per-game player of yore. He is still the man everyone looks to in clutch situations, however, as well as the combination tireless worker and smart player who inspired Coach Pat Quinn's comment that, "A hard worker who doesn't think would bust the door down instead of taking the key out. Bobby Clarke would do either, but I think he'd go for the key first."
All-in-all it is an awesome array, both offensively and defensively. And although there was a lot of talk about how the team was trying to tone down its "Broad Street Bullies" image, the Flyers still managed to lead the league in penalties once again this past season. And with holdovers like Bob (Hound) Kelly and Andre (Moose) Dupont, plus younger imitations like Holmgren and Behn Wilson, you can expect the Flyers to be throwing their weight around against the Islanders too.
The only question about the Flyers, in fact, was whether they were perhaps the classic example of the team that had peaked too early. It did seem that way as the club went a bit flat late in the regular season, but the way it has manhandled its playoff opposition seems to indicate that if indeed the players did lose any of their intensity for a while, they have certainly found it again.
The Islanders, meanwhile, are an enigma: a team which has been tremendously successful in a very short space of years, yet one which has lately suffered a succession of playoff failures -- the last two of which were particularly humiliating. In 1978 they appeared to be intimidated by the rough play of an underdog Toronto team and were ousted in a big quarterfinal upset. Then last year after dethroning Montreal as the regular season champion, they were upset again -- this time (oh, unkindest cut of all!) by their crosstown arch-rivals, the New York Rangers.
This year though, things have been very different. The late-season acquisition of center Butch Goring seemed to make everything fall into place for the team -- especially in terms of taking the pressure off the Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies line, which had often seemed to be the team's only legitimate offensive threat. The spectacular play of Billy Smith in goal has been another big factor -- especially in the playoffs, where goaltending always assumes even greater importance than in the regular season.
And perhaps most important of all, the Islanders proved once and for all -- especially in a rough series with Boston -- that they have reached the point where not only are they past being intimidated by such tactics, they are willing and able to hold their own with an opponent who tries to use them.