Another great piece from Bull Dog Line (BDL). If any of you have anything you want published, send it over.
Many of us remember the conference final in ’94 against the Devils, and think of it as the best Ranger playoff series that we have seen. I think there is one series that can go up against it as the best Ranger playoff series. That would be the 1979 semi final against the Islanders. It matched the Devil series in excitement, skill, and drama. This is my look back at that ’79 series.
The Islanders had steamrolled the league with 51 wins and 116 points. They had 6 twenty goal scorers on the team, including Bossy with 69, and Trottier with 47. Coming off a disappointing playoff in ’78, where they were eliminated by a game 7 OT winner by Lanny McDonald and the Leaves, the Islanders were a heavy favorite to go to the final. They swept their quarterfinal series against the Hawks, and were ready for the Rangers.
The Rangers limped their way to the finish line in ’79. Winning just two of their last 10, they finished with 40 wins and 91 points. The Rangers had to play a preliminary round against LA, which they swept, winning game two in OT on a Phil Esposito goal. Game one of the quarterfinal against Philly was a turning point for the Rangers. In was in OT of game one when Ranger coach Fred Shero turned to his assistant coach and said, “I think we need more speed in the lineup, we should call up Bobby Sheehan”. Ken Linseman scored the OT winner for Philly, but that would be the last win for them. The Rangers went on to destroy the Flyers in the next 4 games by a score of 26 to 5. The Rangers were hot, confident, and ready for the hated Islanders.
Ranger coach Fred Shero made two strategic decisions that had great effect on the series. The first one was to use the line of Vickers, Tkaczuk, and Hedberg, against the Islanders big line of, Gillies, Trottier, and Bossy. The second was a strategy that he used against Bobby Orr and the Bruins in the 1974 final. He used this same strategy against Dennis Potvin. Shero instructed the Rangers, that when dumping the puck into the Islanders zone, they would dump it into Potvin’s corner. Most NHL teams would dump the puck in the opposite corner, fearing if they put the puck in Potvin’s corner it would lead to the give and go, ultimately putting the puck on Potvin’s stick, skating full speed. Shero’s strategy was to put the puck in Potvin’s corner, force him to give it up to his partner Bob Lorimer, and stay with Potvin, eliminating the give and go and keeping the puck away from Potvin and with Lorimer.
The first two games were in Uniondale. The Islanders started Chico Resch in goal, and the Rangers countered with John Davidson. The Islanders started fast in game one, controlling the first 5 minutes. They opened the scoring when Ranger Eddie Johnstone got caught on the ice for an extended shift, and then made a poor decision on a line change. Bryan Trottier took advantage and beat JD from the top of the left circle. That would be the Islanders high point of the game. The Rangers then took over. Murdoch tied later in the first, and Johnstone made up for his mistake and scored on a scramble in front of the net. The second period was all Rangers. The Islanders could not handle the Ranger speed. Ron Dugauy scored off a beautiful passing play from Sheehan and Pat Hickey. Sheehan then scored a little later in the second off great board work by Pierre Plante. The Islanders did not threaten in the 3rd, and the Rangers took game one 4 to 1.
In Game 2, the Islanders switched to Billy Smith. The Rangers started strong and opened the scoring in the first on a goal by Walter Tkaczuk. In the second Wayne Merrick scored for the Isles to tie it, but Sheehan put the Rangers back in front with a LW slapper. The Islanders scored two quickies in the third to grab the lead. Bob Lorimer scored on a seeing eye shot from the point, and Bob Nystrom put the Isles ahead. Despite the score, the Rangers were outplaying the Islanders, and with a little over 4 to go in the third, Espo tied it. In OT the Rangers were again controlling the play, but off a broken play at the Rangers blue line, that may very well have been offsides, Potvin beat JD to even the series.
Game 3 was at MSG, and the Islanders switched back to Resch. After a scoreless first, the Rangers, who had been controlling the play, broke through. Sheehan, once again was a thorn in the Islanders side, scoring on a rebound to put the Rangers up. It was short lived, as Bob Bourne answered. The Espo, Maloney, Murdoch line was putting it to the Isles, and Espo scored to get the lead back for the Rangers. The Isles came after the Rangers hard in the third, but with no luck, as JD shut them down. Steve Vickers iced the game on a breakaway that he lost the handle of, and ended up wrapping around and scoring into an empty net as Resch was way out of position. 3 to 1 victory, and a 2 to 1 series lead.
Game 4, and the Islanders go back to Smith. After a scoreless first, Don Maloney beat Smith early in the second on a breakaway. John Tonelli answered with a breakaway goal of his own. This was the Isles best two periods of the series; for the first time were playing with confidence. Early in the third, Billy Harris gave the Islanders the lead. But this Ranger team was very resilient. Don Maloney tied it shortly after the Harris goal, and that is how the score remained in the third. So for the second time in the series, the teams were playing OT. It did not take long for the Isles to win it. Mario Marios pinched, and Clark Gilles pushed the puck ahead. The race was on. JD came flying out of the net with Nystrom barreling down on him. The puck bounced over a sliding JD, and left the net wide open for Nystrom to easily score the winner.
Game 5, and for the first time Al Arbour sticks with a goalie in consecutive games. Billy Smith would once again be in net. This game was by far the best game of the series. A game I put right up there with game 6 against the Devs in ’94. Both teams seemed to take the approach that this was they game they had to have. A game 7 if you will. The pace was frantic, and on a 4 on 4, Don Maloney scored. The Rangers seemed to be taking control of the game, and earned a PP late in the first. With a chance to go up 2 zip on the PP, the Rangers could not get out of their own way, and Lorne Henning scored a shorty to tie the game. There was only one goal in the second, and it was a typical Billy Smith play that lead to it. Mike McEwen, who with Mario Marios had really struggled in this series, took a shot from the point. Smith made the save, but the puck went straight up. Smith took a wild swing at it and missed, it landed at his feet where Lucien Deblois was there to pounce on it and put it in. The Islanders tied the game early in the third on a goal that never went in. Mike Kaszycki took a long distance shot that seemed to knuckle and fool JD. The puck hit the post, and bounced out and under JD. The goal judge, fooled by something, put on the red light, and Bruce Hood, not seeing if the puck went in or not, went with the goal judges ruling. Tie game. Midway through the third, Greschner put the Rangers back on top. That lead lasted all of 29 seconds. Nystrom, who had been killing the Rangers throughout the series, scored his third of the series to tie. The game then became frantic. End to end action. Both teams going for it. The Rangers finally broke through. Off a wild scramble in front, Anders Hedberg put in a backhander on his second chance. And with 2.13 to go in the game, the Rangers had the lead. The Islanders came at the Rangers with everything they had, and JD robbed Nystrom late to hold on for the win. The Rangers now lead the series, 3 games to 2, and were heading home.
Game 6, and Chico is back.
This game had the feeling of an inevitable Ranger win. The Islanders did strike for the first goal. Mike Bossy finally made an appearance, and scored on a PP in the first. But the second was all Rangers. Murdoch scored on a broken face off play, pouncing on a rebound. Greschner then scored on the PP, cashing in on great Don Maloney board play. Greschner beat Resch with a long slapper. The third was the Islanders desperate, and the Rangers holding on. When the buzzer went of, they had a 2 to 1 victory, and the series. The celebration was wild, and the vision of Dennis Potvin slouched along the boards will stay with me forever.
The Rangers would go on to lose to the Canadiens in 5 games in the final. The next season, the Islanders would trade for Butch Goring, and begin a streak of winning 19 consecutive play off series. The Rangers would not be back to the finals until 1994.