David Chyzowski scored 56 goals for the Kamloops Blazers of the Western (Junior) Hockey League last season. Since then he has turned 18 and joined the New York Islanders. Chyzowski was put on this earth to create offense, not jack people's jaws. Yet there he was, on Jan. 10 at Maple Leaf Gardens, steaming across the ice and spoiling for a piece of Toronto defenseman Brian Curran, who, at 6'3" and 215 pounds, is on this earth—and the Maple Leafs' payroll—to jack people's jaws. Moments earlier, Curran had deposited New York center Pat LaFontaine on the seat of his drawers. As Chyzowski saw it, Curran was guilty of two offenses: failing to pick on someone his own size—LaFontaine is 5'10", 177 pounds—and endangering the Islanders' playoff hopes. LaFontaine had had a hand in 59 of his team's 148 goals this season. At all costs, he must be protected.
The linesmen never did let Chyzowski and Curran tangle. For their ill intentions, however, both were ejected. "All I did was bump him a little," Chyzowski grumbled.
Chyzowski's reaction to Curran's decking of LaFontaine reflected a team-wide trend. These Islanders fight back when they get sand kicked in their faces. That has helped them start another, more shocking trend: winning. New York went on to beat Toronto 3-1, and after Saturday's 4-2 victory over the Washington Capitals, the Islanders had won six straight games, 11 of their last 12 and 15 of their last 19. They were far and away the hottest team in the NHL.
While their newfound toughness is paying dividends, the principal reason for New York's resurgence is LaFontaine, who, at the age of 24, has ascended to the level of play that began to be predicted for him eight years ago, when he scored 175 goals in 79 games for the Detroit Compuware Midgets. His 39 goals at week's end put him two behind league leader Brett Hull of the St. Louis Blues. LaFontaine's failure to score in the win over Washington ended an 11-game goal-scoring streak.
LaFontaine has not exactly sneaked up on anyone. He did, after all, score a total of 92 goals in 1987-88 and 1988-89. But by all accounts, he has found a higher gear. "He's reached another plateau in the last 20 games," says Islander left wing Don Maloney. "Every time he touches the puck, we all sit up a little straighter and hold our breath."
"The premier players, like Gretzky, always seem to score when you need it," says Islander goaltender Glenn Healy. "They get important goals. Not goals that make a 5-1 game 5-2, but goals that tie games and win them. Those are the kinds of goals Patty is scoring for us this season."
Not coincidentally, LaFontaine kicked into overdrive around the time the Trade was made. That's how the Islanders refer to it: the Trade.
"Ever since the Trade, everyone on the team has been playing as if he's four inches taller and 25 pounds heavier," says left wing Randy Wood. Like most of the Islanders, Wood talks about the Trade the way New Yorkers refer to Manhattan as "the City" and tourists at Graceland discuss "the King"—as if the term is self-explanatory.
For those who haven't followed the Islanders' Jekyll-and-Hyde season, here are the particulars of the deal. On Nov. 29, general manager Bill Torrey sent right wing Mikko Makela to the Los Angeles Kings for defenseman Ken Baumgartner and checking center Hubie McDonough. The once-potent Makela had become an underachieving sulkmeister in New York; Baumgartner and McDonough had languished unused with the Kings.
Before the Trade, the Islanders were 5-18-3 and working out a time-share arrangement with the Quebec Nordiques for the NHL cellar. Post-Trade they were 15-3-1 through Sunday and in second place in the Patrick Division. Most important, unlike the Islanders of a year ago, this team is very much in the playoff hunt.
The Islanders see, along with the new feistiness and LaFontaine's contributions, four reasons for their U-turn:
•Keeping close to the other guys. Before the Trade, "We weren't as bad as our record indicated," they say. The Islanders seldom get blown out. When you throw out empty-net goals scored against them, 10 of their 21 defeats have been by a single goal. "When we had breakdowns," says LaFontaine, "they'd usually come late in the game, and they would cost us the game."
•The goalies. Healy and Mark Fitzpatrick, two of five former Kings on the roster, have sparkled since the Trade. Going into the Islanders' Nov. 30 game in Chicago—their first since the Trade-Fitzpatrick had a 1-8-1 record and a corresponding confidence level. With McDonough scoring his first goal as an Islander and Baumgartner leveling every Blackhawk in sight, Fitzpatrick stonewalled Chicago 2-0. In 12 games since he has gone 9-2-1, with two more shutouts. The post-Trade Healy is 5-1.
•The Trade (addition by subtraction). Makela's departure "excised a cancer," says one Islander official. In contrast to his 36-goal 1987-88 season, Makela scored only twice in 20 games this season. His moping and chronic unhappiness had begun to infect the team.
•The Trade (addition). While McDonough has been a pleasant surprise, scrapping and checking and even chipping in with five goals, Baumgartner, who at week's end did not have a single point as an Islander, has been even more useful. Ideally, intimidation would not be a part of the NHL, but the NHL is short on idealism. Baumgartner, it so happens, is an intimidators' intimidator, the most effective "cop" the Islanders have seen since Bobby Nystrom and Clark Gillies patrolled the rinks a decade ago. Of Baumgartner, LaFontaine says, "He's the kind of guy, you're just glad he's on your team."
Under Al Arbour, who took over behind the Islander bench on an interim basis in December 1988 (Arbour retired two years earlier after having guided New York to four consecutive Stanley Cups, from 1980 to '83), Baumgartner has learned to be more selective in the use of his ham-hock fists.
"He knows that if he takes three five-minute majors and spends 15 minutes in the penalty box, he's not doing us much good," says Healy. "He's become a mosquito. He bugs the other teams' snipers without drawing a penalty—kind of like a mosquito that lands in the middle of your back, where you can't reach it."
Baumgartner, who has his pride, takes exception to that simile. "Mosquito? Get serious," says Baumgartner. "I'm a Bengal tiger out there."
Mosquito, Bengal tiger, hammerhead, whatever—Baumgartner has lent his teammates courage in the NHL's tough arenas, and provided LaFontaine with precious extra room in which to work his magic. In New York's 8-4 humiliation of the North Stars in Minnesota on Jan. 11, LaFontaine contributed six points—five assists and a goal. The goal extended his streak to 11 games, a club record. But the most significant red light of his night awaited LaFontaine on his arrival in his hotel room, where he was greeted by a flashing bulb on his phone. Mike Bossy, whose record LaFontaine broke, had called to offer his congratulations. "I thought that was pretty classy," says LaFontaine.
This bonhomie is a recent development. In 1984, when LaFontaine arrived on Long Island in late season as a highly touted rookie, he was not welcomed with open arms. The Islanders were a close-knit dynasty. LaFontaine, a doe-eyed media darling, had won nothing but would probably end up taking someone's job, went the thinking. "There was a little bit of resentment, from guys who aren't here anymore," says center Brent Sutter. LaFontaine, who says nothing when he has nothing nice to say, will not admit that he felt ostracized, nor will he deny it. He does say, "Whatever happened that year, it never diminished the respect I had for those guys as players."
LaFontaine was so mindful of his elders that he had to fight the urge to address them as Mr. Trottier, Mr. Bossy, Mr. Gillies, Mr. Goring. For a long time, his deference showed up in his play. It was almost as if he was afraid of stealing the thunder of the men who had won all those Stanley Cups.
"Something always held him back," says Sutter. "I think he always had it in him, but he was a little nervous or unsure about letting it out. Nothing against Boss, but I think it's great for guys like Patty to break some of the records of the old guys. The past is the past. We're a new team with a new outlook."
To spare Islander newcomers what he went through, LaFontaine has become a self-appointed one-man welcome wagon. He and his wife, Marybeth, have barbecues in the off-season; all Islanders are invited. According to Chyzowski, he peppers rookies and recent acquisitions with concerned questions: "Is your apartment working out? Do you need some help finding a car?"
"He can't do enough for you," says McDonough.
The Islanders have become LaFontaine's team. New York finished strong last season, winning four of its final six games. Not long afterward, LaFontaine phoned Arbour, who was still the interim coach, and made a date for breakfast. Over coffee he asked Arbour to consider staying on as coach.
"I thought it over and decided, What the hell, I'll give it another whack," says Arbour, whose strengths—an endless store of patience and a gift for teaching—are perfectly suited to his youthful team. When Torrey asked him to return to coaching, after having fired Terry Simpson, Arbour admits he wanted nothing to do with it. All told, as a player and coach, he had won seven Stanley Cups. He was a lock to be elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. He was prepared to play out his string with the club in a less-stressful job as vice-president for player development.
Instead, he found himself back in Ulcerville, pushing the buttons for one of the league's worst teams—and liking it. While guiding New York to a 21-29-3 record last season, Arbour contracted the coaching bug again. "I get pleasure out of watching young players mature and grow," he says. On mornings after games, early arrivals to the Islander offices began finding Arbour already in his quarters, breaking down video.
Even when the Islanders got off to a 5-18-3 start this season, they did not despair. They were a composed 5-18-3. "Surprisingly, there was no sense of panic," says Maloney, a former New York Ranger. "Across town, guys used to be ready to jump off the roof when we lost two games in a row."
Through it all, Arbour preached the importance of winning "the little battles" along the boards and in the corners, and of "accountability to one another." Then Torrey pulled the trigger on the Trade, and the bigger victories began to come. "Now the game's fun again," says LaFontaine. "That's what it's supposed to be, right? I mean, this is a kid's game."
Did someone say "kids"? The Islanders went into their Jan. 11 meeting with the North Stars with this incentive: If they won and the Philadelphia Flyers lost, the Islanders—for so long a tenant of the Patrick Division basement—would take over second place, behind the New Jersey Devils. In the visitors' dressing room afterward, an Islander was asked how it felt to be in second. "You mean the Flyers lost?" he asked.
Yes, it was true, Philadelphia had lost. The cry quickly went up all over: "Hey, the Flyers lost!" Nowhere was the news received so joyously as in the showers, where the whooping and hooting of grown-up kids soon drowned out all other noise.
LaFontaine has had a hot stick since the Trade, helping lift New York from sixth to second place in the Patrick Division.
Arbour chose to stay at the helm.
Lacking in confidence early in the season, Fitzpatrick has been impregnable of late.
McDonough was all but unused in L.A., but he's happy to get down and dirty in N.Y.
All was A-O.K. for La Fontaine, even after the Caps capped his goal-scoring streak at 11.