Sunday, June 20, 2021

Canadiens-Islanders Stanley Cup Final 42 Years Overdue

IT WAS EXPECTED TO BE the best vs. the best, the reigning dynasty vs. the rising power.

But something happened on the way to the 1979 Stanley Cup finals, and the series that performance and passion demanded, pitting the defending champion Montreal Canadiens against the National Hockey League's top regular season team, the New York Islanders, was not to be.

Montreal captain Yvan Cornoyer
hoists the Stanley Cup in 1978. 
The Isles. The Habs. Two storied franchises. Together they combined to win eight consecutive cups, monopolizing hockey's big silver chalice from 1976 through 1983 without ever having to defeat one another in a head-to-head fight for its possession.

Now, 42 years later, and midway through the NHL's semifinals, there remains the possibility to reschedule this date with destiny. 

It's an opportunity that exists only by dint of a provisional divisional realignment prompted by a once-in-a-century pandemic, and the resultant closure of the U.S. Canada border that forced the league to abandon its Eastern and Western conference structure, opening the door to an all-Eastern final.

The Islanders-Tampa Bay Lightning series is tied at two wins apiece, Montreal leads the Vegas Golden Knights, two games to one.

C'est maintenant! This chance may never come again. 

Way back then, the NHL playoffs were a little different. The four division winners got a first-round bye. Those that finished second played a best-of-three preliminary series against one of four wild card teams: those with the highest point totals, that didn't finish in first or second, regardless of their division or conference of origin. Survivors got reseeded for the ensuing rounds. 

The 78-79 Canadiens held up their end, winning the NHL's Norris Division and earning a bye while mayhem played out among the league's hoi polloi. 

The Flower, from the Habs'
1978-79 yearbook
Stacked with Hockey Hall of Fame talent including head coach Scotty Bowman, the Habs rolled up 115 points during the regular season, accruing a 52-17-11 record, second only to that of the Islanders' 116 (51-15-14).

Leading their attack was Guy Lafleur, whose 129 points (52 goals, 77 assists), put him third in the league for scoring. Surrounding Lafleur were sniper Steve Shutt (37G, 40A), Pierre Mondou (31G/41A), Mario Tremblay and Yvon Lambert. Still on the team, though ailing, was their veteran captain, Yvan Cornoyer.

Flashy as the Flying Frenchmen were, defense was their backbone.

Forward Bob Gainey was in the midst of a four-year run as recipient of the Selke Award bestowed annually on the league's top defensive forward. Behind him were a slew of Hall-bound defensemen: Serge Savard, Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe and Rod Langway. And behind them, superlative goaltender Ken Dryden and backup Michel "Bunny" Laroque.

Loaded though they were, Montreal only narrowly escaped dethronement by the Boston Bruins, who led game 7 of their semi-final series 4-3, with just 2:34 left in regulation when they got caught with too many men on the ice.

Lafleur scored on the power play, sending the game into overtime where Lambert slid a goal line pass under Boston net minder Gilles Gilbert for the series winner.

The regular season champion Islanders too were stocked with hall-bound superstars starting with center Bryan Trottier and his wingmen, Mike Bossy and Clark Gillies, aka the Trio Grande. Trotts' 134 points (47G, 87A) led the league, capturing the Art Ross trophy as scoring leader and the Hart trophy as MVP. Bossy tallied 69 goals and 126 points, while Gillies added 35 goals and 56 assists.

Sandwiched amid those top scoring forwards was rock solid defenseman Denis Potvin, en route to winning his second straight Norris Trophy as the league's top blueliner, while posting 31 goals and 70 assists. Their head coach was the Hall-bound Al Arbour.

Everything but the Cup.
(From the 1978-79 Islanders yearbook)

Steadily accruing talent since their 1972 incarnation, the Isles lost three straight semifinals before being bounced in the quarters by the '77-78 Toronto Maple Leafs. With a solid supporting cast including goalies Glenn Resch and Billy Smith and that gaudy regular season performance, they seemed primed to take the next step.

They stepped, and fell, over the rival New York Rangers, a wild card team who'd dispatched the Los Angeles Kings and then the Philadelphia Flyers en route to their semifinal clash with their suburban brethren. 

Four of the series' six games were decided by a single goal, twice in overtime -- both Islanders' victories -- but it didn't matter. After knotting affairs at two games a piece, the Isles dropped game five at the Nassau Coliseum and game six at Madison Square Garden. 

Just like that, the NHL's top regular season team was done, or undone, and in any event, finished. Snuffed out. There would be no faceoff with the Habs, who beat the Rangers four games to one, capturing the cup for the fourth straight year.

Had things played out differently, Montreal might have surrendered the cup to the Islanders much in the same way the Isles would lose it to the upstart Edmonton Oilers in 1984, launching that next dynasty. 

Though the Habs and Isles met in subsequent series, most recently the 1993 semis won by Montreal, the potential for a main-à-main struggle for the silver was formatted out of existence, until now.

While there's no replacing that missing bookend to the Canadiens-Islanders-Oilers succession, there is -- as of this writing -- at least the potential for serving up a variation on that NHL finale fans were denied so many years ago.

Now may never come again.

-- On twitter @paperboyarchive

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