Islanders and Superman savor their Stanley Cup
Emblazoned on the back wall of Bob Nystrom's dressing cubicle in the New York Islander locker room is a blowup of Superman launching into full flight. Late Saturday afternoon here, Nystrom did a marvelous imitation of his cartoon poster after the scored on a backhand flip shot to beat the Philadelphia Flyers 5 to 4 in sudden-death overtime and bring the Stanley Cup to Long Island.
Nystrom's exultant leap touched off a tumultuous celebration by the long-suffering Islanders and their fans that is still going on. Never has the storied cup been enjoyed more.
Gushed Nystrom later, his uniform still dripping: "When this team came into being eight years ago, it had the worst record in the league. Then when we built a winning record we got a reputation for choking in the playoffs. Well, we've finally shed that label. This shows we can win the big games."
Indeed, the Islanders went into the boiling cauldron of overtime six times during the 1980 playoffs, and won five in an amazing proof of their mettle.
A Nystrom goal decided a semifinal game against Buffalo in the second extra period, and in his career the hard-skating right winger has scored four times in overtime -- more than anyone else in National Hockey League history except Maurice (the Rocket) Richard of Montreal, who scored six.
His histrionics surprise Nystrom much less than they do others. A positive thinker all the way, he plansm to be the hero.
"Before an overtime, I tell myself I'm going to be the man," he said. "I take a scalpel and carve a notch on my stick, right below the knob, to symbolize the goal I intend to score. It started last year against the Rangers, and after notching my stick I had that collision with their goalie John Davidson and popped the puck into an empty net behind him."
The archrival Rangers came back to win that semifinal series, though, and move into the finals against the eventual champion, Mortreal. The Islanders, who had finished first in the regular season, went home emotionally crushed.
"We learned to cope with our frustration day to day this season," said Coach Al Arbour, "and that helped us in the playoffs. Our players were determined to make up for being eliminated by the Rangers. I think I heard about that after every game we lost this year.
"Now we've shown everyone what we're made of, and we did it the hard way all along, right to the end. We got two goals ahead of the Flyers, but they came back in the last period."
In fact, Philadelphia comebacks were beginning to look like the theme of this series until Nystrom's goal settled the question for good. The Flyers, who once trailed three games to one, shook off an early New York goal to win Game 5 and narrow the gap, then battled furiously to stave off elimination here.
Each of the Islanders' first two goals in the nationally televised sixth game produced controversy, and indeed the TV replays showed clearly that the second one came after a linesman had missed an obvious offside infraction. But the Flyers shook off the bad breaks to tie the game, then battled back again from that two-goal deficit in the last period. And always in the back of everyone's mind was the fact that if they could pull this one out, it would be they who would have come ice for the seventh game.
"Before the overtime," Arbour said, "I just told our fellows, 'Look, we have to adjust in our end. We're a little scrambly. But if you get an opening, you have to go for it, as long as one man backs up the play.'
"It was fitting that Nystrom got the goal. He's scored a lot of big goals for us, and he's worked hard to make himself a player.
"He wasn't a good skater, but he took lessons from a lady instructor on hiw own time a few years ago to improve. That typifies the attitude of this team. The big thing about our victory to me is that we're No. 1 after only eight years."
Nystrom remembered wistfully that he, forwards Garry Howatt and Lorne Henning , and goalie Billy Smith are the four veterans who go back to that first season of 1972-73, when the motley Islanders won 12, lost 60, and tied 6 -- and the playoffs were nothing more than a misty dream.
"At a time like this you recall so many people who helped you when you were young and struggling," Nystrom said. "Guys like J. P. Parise and Jude Drouin, who helped us gain experience. I remember Bert Marshall telling us that the Stanley Cup is what the game is all about and you don't get many chances to win it.So many players never get a chance. Those fellows are no longer on the team, but their spirit is with us. They're winners, too."
Smith, the combative goaltender who frustrated the Flyers throughout the series, is actually the only Islander left from the team that took the ice on apening day in 1972, since Howatt, Henning, and Nystrom all joined the club later in the season.
"I can't even remember if I played that first game," Smith said, "but I can remember a lot of frustration in those early years. We've been called everything but champs, and now we've won the Stanley Cup. I still don't believe it. There's no way to explain the feeling I have."
It was mentioned that the Islanders are still a young team overall, with offensive stars Bryan Trottier (named Most Valuable Player in the playoffs after he scored a record 29 points) and Mike Bossy both 23 years old and defensive leader Dennis Potvin 26.
Is this the beginning of a dynasty?
"Let's hope so," Smith said.