Lighting The Lamp, With Rick Ackerman
The Blues are more than happy to return home after a rather disastrous road trip which saw them drop two games in California after winning one in Colorado. St. Louis was especially tepid in the first period of both losses, out-shot 25-11 and out-scored six to zero. It will be a comfort to face an Eastern Division team such as the visiting New York Islanders as the Blues have won eight of ten games against the East, with 35 goals for and only 19 against. And the Islanders have been on a slow and steady decline into the basement of the Metropolitan Division, only winning two of their last 14 games. The Islanders last win on the road was over a month ago on November 1 in Ottawa. The Islanders' offense (read center John Tavares) is adequate, however team defense is horrid, ranked 29th out of 30 teams. New York's penalty killing doesn't help much either as it is the worst in the league.
The Islanders joined the NHL as an expansion team in 1972, only five years after the Blues entered the league in the great expansion of 1967 when the league doubled in size. Another expansion so quickly was caused by the birth of the World Hockey Association, which wanted to put their flagship franchise, the New York Raiders, in the brand new Coliseum built in Uniondale, Nassau County on Long Island, nineteen miles east of Manhattan. City and county leaders on Long Island did not consider the WHA a major league and instead hired prominent New York lawyer William Shea to use his influence to get an NHL team in order to legally block the WHA's franchise for the new building. Shea, of course, was instrumental in bringing National League baseball back to New York a decade earlier in the form of the Mets, who played at the stadium named for Shea in Queens. Strings were pulled and the NHL hastily awarded a franchise to wealthy clothing manufacturer Ray Boe, the owner of the ABA's New York Nets. Although it was widely expected that the new team would be called the Long Island Ducks, a familiar name to local Eastern Hockey League fans, Boe unexpectedly chose to use "New York Islanders" instead, most likely hoping to attract fans from Queens and Brooklyn. The Rangers waived their territorial rights for a payment of $4M.
Boe wisely hired Bill "Bow-tie" Torrey (HHOF 1995) as his General Manager. Torrey had previous experience as GM of the Oakland Seals and leaned to build his teams through the expansion draft rather than trade for veteran players. He is responsible for drafting Hall of Fame players Denis Potvin, Clark Gillies, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy and Pat Lafontaine in the amateur draft, as well as goaltender Billy Smith and veteran forward Ed Westfall in the expansion draft. Trottier, Bossy and Smith would all win Conn Smythe Trophies as playoff MVPs. Another astute move was the hiring of ex-Blues defenseman and coach Al Arbour as the Islanders' coach in 1973. Under Torrey's leadership, New York had 14 consecutive winning seasons, six Patrick Division titles, five consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup Finals and four consecutive Stanley Cup championships.
The Islanders' breakout season in 1975 saw them increase their point total during the regular season to 88, 32 more than the previous season, two more than their first two seasons combined. They upset the rival Rangers in the first round and stunned the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins with four straight wins after losing the first three games of the series. They would fall to the eventual Cup-winning Philadelphia Flyers, yet it took seven hard-fought games for the Flyers to dispatch the Islanders. Regular season success continued as the Isles captured divisional titles and even had the best record in the entire league in 1978-79.
However, playoff success eluded New York, so Torrey and Arbour focused on building a team designed for the rigors of post-season play. Torrey traded scoring star Billy Harris and defenseman Dave Lewis to Los Angeles for hard-nosed center Butch Goring, who turned out to be the real key to playoff success. With Olympic gold medallist Ken Morrow added on defense, the Islanders stormed to Stanley Cup championships in 1980, 1981, 1982 and 1983. The fourth consecutive win was particularly satisfying as goaltender Smith, the MVP of the playoffs, shut down the powerful Edmonton Oilers' offense. Wayne Gretzky failed to score a goal during the series. Of course, the Oilers would end the streak the following year (defeating the Islanders in the Finals) and go on to win five Cup championships in the next seven years. The Oilers also ended New York's 19 playoff-series winning streak, the longest playoff streak in the history of professional sports.
Despite Arbour's retirement in 1986, the club remained competitive for the rest of the decade, yet the Islanders never returned to their glory days and faded into obscurity. New owner John Pickett, who purchased the team from Boe earlier in 1978, and used money from a lucrative contract with cable giant Sportschannel (now MSG Plus) to fund the team, refused to invest in high-priced players and limited Torrey's ability to improve the Isles. Torrey was eventually forced to leave the team in 1992 and resurfaced in Florida as President of the expansion Panthers.
Continuing financial and attendance problems at the antiquated Nassau County Coliseum on Long Island have compelled the Islanders to play next year at the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn. In the meantime, the Blues hope to take advantage of a weaker team and pick up two points tonight.