Mike Bossy sat in front of his locker in the Nassau Coliseum last Saturday night, patiently answering questions, smoking a cigarette and basking in the afterglow of success. His four goals had just led the New York Islanders to an 8-4 victory over the Boston Bruins in the sixth and final game of their best-of-seven Stanley Cup semifinal series.
With his scoring burst, Bossy had finally lifted this series out of the ordinary and at the same time reminded the hockey world that there is someone other than the Edmonton Oilers' Wayne Gretzky who can dominate and electrify. Bossy had tied a record by scoring nine goals—including all four game-winners—against a Bruins team that had the best record for the 1982-83 regular season. Bossy had beaten all-star Goalie Pete Peeters with everything but a whisk—slapshots, snapshots, backhands and scrambles. And of his four goals Saturday, three were a result of Bossy's gaining such good position that he could have scored them with a mop.
The New York victory sets up what promises to be a classic pairing for the Stanley Cup—the Islanders against the Oilers. "Edmonton has a great young hockey team, and we're the three-time Stanley Cup champions," Bossy said. "Individually, I don't feel I have anything to settle with Gretzky. He'll do his thing and I'll do mine. But I do think the hockey world wanted our two teams to play each other."
Bossy's inability to "do his thing" in the early rounds of the playoffs had been of major concern to the Islanders as they entered the semifinals. Moreover, the Bruins figured to be the toughest opponent the Isles had faced in the 15 playoff series since they began their Cup string three years ago. They have, of course, won all 15; even more stunning is the fact that none has gone seven games.
Bossy was virtually the only Islander forward not to fall into a slump in the regular season as New York finished second to Philadelphia in the Patrick Division. He had 60 goals and 58 assists, but in the first two rounds of the playoffs he had struggled offensively, scoring just six goals in 10 games against the Capitals and the Rangers. Worse, he was negative in the Islander's plus-minus ratings—meaning that opponents were scoring often while Bossy was on the ice. "It was frustrating," he said after the Bruins series, "because the chances were there, but the puck just wasn't going in. Because I'm an offensive player, the team expects me to put some numbers on the board. But that doesn't mean I wasn't contributing. I refuse to say I was playing badly before this series."
The line of Bob Bourne and Duane and Brent Sutter had led New York in scoring through the first two playoff series, but to knock off the Bruins all the Islanders would have to produce. During the regular season Boston, which finished with 110 points to New York's 96, had beaten the Islanders twice and tied them once, Peeters allowing only three goals in the three games. Peeters had the lowest goals-against average in the league (2.36), and New York and Boston were 1-2, respectively, in allowing the fewest goals during the season. It seemed likely that these games would be low-scoring, tight-checking affairs, with superb goaltending and nail-biting finishes.
It didn't work out that way. For some reason there wasn't a game in which both teams played at their best; as a consequence every game became a rout. The goaltending was awful as often as it was brilliant, partly because the checking wasn't tight. As for nail-biting, there were nails biting into flesh, but that was about it.
The Islanders split the first two games in the Boston Garden, winning 5-2 in the opener and then dropping Game 2 4-1, despite outplaying the Bruins. In Game 3 the reverse held true: Boston carried the play, but New York converted the goals, winning 7-3 in a game that was really closer than that. The same could not be said for the fourth game—the Islanders' best of the series. Leading 3-2 in the third period, New York, led by Bossy's hat trick, exploded for five goals in a six-minute span. There was Bossy snapping in a between-the-legs, backhand pass from Anders Kallur; Bossy rifling in a shot off a pass from Tomas Jonsson; Bossy busting past the Bruins' defense at top speed and backhanding a shot under the hapless Peeters. With the score 8-2, Boston Coach Gerry Cheevers motioned Peeters over and put an arm around his weary netminder. "How you doing?" Cheevers asked. "Great," was Peeters reply. He chose to finish the game.
Afterward Bossy, his scoring slump behind him, explained: "When the goals aren't coming, you start playing herky-jerky and you're not as smooth as you should be. Have I been watching tapes of myself? No way. I'd get too discouraged. But tonight I felt smooth."
As prolific as Bossy was, the balance in the Islanders' attack was the difference in the series. Eleven different players contributed goals for New York in the first four games. Of Boston's 12 goals in those games, 10 had been either scored or assisted on by the line of Rick Middleton, Barry Pederson and Mike Krushelnyski. And not only were most of the Bruins not scoring, they weren't checking with the intensity that had made them the dominant team in the NHL this season. During the regular season they had allowed just 23.9 shots per game at Peeters; in the first four playoff games the Islanders averaged 31 and scored at a whopping 5.25 goal average. "We can't afford to get into an equal-opportunity situation with them," Cheevers said before Game 5 in Boston last Thursday. "We've got to cut their scoring chances even if it means cutting down on ours."
Cheevers, who had called Bossy "probably one of the greatest snipers in hockey history," took drastic measures to stop the Islanders' right winger on Thursday. He ordered rookie Left Wing Luc Dufour to cover Bossy everywhere he went. "I asked him if he meant all the time or just when he had the puck," Dufour said afterward. "He said, 'All the time.' " Dufour, who had never before been assigned to shadow a man, stuck to Bossy like adhesive tape, occasionally grabbing onto Bossy's stick when Referee Wally Harris wasn't looking. "It was nothing subtle," Bossy said. "In the first period he could have been called for interference every time he was on the ice. There were no Tiger Williams tactics. It was just good clean interference, if you consider interference clean."
The Islanders scored first in Game 5 on a long, dipping shot by Bob Nystrom, but Boston came storming back with five straight goals in the first two periods. GET MAD AND GET EVEN exhorted one banner hanging from the balcony. POUND THE SUTTER SISTERS another said. The Bruins followed that advice to the letter. When it was all over they had outshot the Islanders 45-22, and left the Garden ringing with chants of "Tuesday night! Tuesday night!" in hopes of a Game 7. Afterward Keith Crowder, who had scuffled twice with the cantankerous Duane Sutter and emerged with scratches on his face, complained, "I haven't had a fight with a girl for a long time. He's got longer fingernails than my wife."
Said suddenly nervous Islander Captain Denis Potvin: "The Bruins aren't a team that doesn't want to go back to Long Island, figuring they can't win anyway. They're the league's first-place team, and if they win one game at a time they might get back in the series."
Which they might have done had they gotten some goaltending from Peeters Saturday night. It's difficult to recall a worse playoff series by a goalie of his caliber. True, he excelled in the two Boston wins, but in its four losses he allowed some atrocious goals that put them right out of the games. The Bruins wouldn't have been so good this season without him, but teams that live by the shield also die by it. And in Game 6, die they did.
With Boston trailing 1-0 early, Peeters misfired a clearing pass behind the net onto the stick of Bryan Trottier, who passed it to Bossy in front for an easy open-net goal. Then, after the Bruins fought back to 2-2, Peeters gave Brent Sutter the short side on a backhand shot. In the first minute of the second period Peeters fanned on a long shot by Bossy, and the rout was on. At the halfway point Bossy added a rebound goal and another off a long, confused scramble during which Peeters lost his stick. Sombreros littered the ice after Bossy's third and fourth goals. "I would have liked a fifth," he said afterward. "I've never had five goals in an NHL game."
For the series the Islanders had scored 30 goals in six games, quite different from the three goals they'd managed against the Bruins during the regular season. "We played like we thought we could go up and down the ice with the Islanders," said Boston General Manager Harry Sinden. "We can't."
The Oilers, however, can, which should make for the best final series in a decade. After eliminating the Bruins, Bossy said: "I heard a Boston fan screaming that we didn't deserve to be here because of the lousy regular season we had. We were sixth overall, but everyone looks at that as lousy. Well, we want to make up for it."
They already have.
With Bossy back on the stick, New York has a fine chance for Cup No. 4.
Peeters, here allowing a Nystrom goal in Game 4, proved to be a net loss for the Bruins.