Islanders’ 10 Worst Moments in 50-Year Franchise History

As their 50th anniversary season celebration continues, the New York Islanders are recalling all the amazing moments that have happened since their inaugural season in 1972. With four Stanley Cup championships and dozens of stars to have worn the blue and orange, there is no shortage of wonderful memories. But how about the not-so-wonderful ones? Don’t we all need to spend a little time getting knocked on our butts to truly appreciate our times in the sun?

Thus, here are the 10 worst moments in the Islanders’ 50-year history:

10 – First Islanders vs. Rangers Game, Coliseum, Oct. 21, 1972 

The reason this game is on this list? The sellout crowd that night had to be in the neighborhood of 80 percent New York Rangers fans. If you had closed your eyes when the visitors scored the winner with about 13 minutes to go in the third, you’d have bet the house you were at the Garden. As a 12-year-old kid with my Billy Harris jersey on, it was a rude awakening to the mountain Isles fans had to climb to be heard in this rivalry. They eventually got there, but that night in Nassau was a rough start, and the team’s 12-60-6 record that season didn’t help.

9 – Dale Hunter Cheap Shots Pierre Turgeon 

The 1992-93 season was a good one for the Islanders. It could have been a great one if not for one of the worst cheap shots in NHL history. In the deciding Game 6 of the Islanders’ opening-round series against the Washington Capitals at the Coliseum, Pierre Turgeon had just scored a third-period goal to give his team a 5-1 lead with less than 10 minutes to go, all but clinching the series for the Isles.

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During his goal celebration, Dale Hunter blindsided Turgeon with a vicious hit to the boards that separated his shoulder and knocked the team’s best player out of the playoffs. The fact that they faced the eventual Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens in the semifinals in a tough five-game series, left everyone wondering what might have been. 

8 – Poor Ziggy Palffy 

Okay, this wasn’t a “moment” but a period of time, but the Ziggy Palffy era was most certainly among the Isles’ worst memories. The most underrated superstar in team history, the former first-round pick dazzled in front of thousands of empty seats from 1994 to 1999. That he somehow managed to put up 168 goals and 331 points in just 331 games, surrounded by minor-league talent, was Herculean.

Ziggy Palffy New York Islanders
Ziggy Palffy, New York Islanders, Oct. 10, 1995 (Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images)

As the only reason to venture inside the Coliseum during these very dark years, Palffy regularly put on a show despite that he was the only player the opposition had to worry about. Consecutive seasons of 43, 48, and 45 goals were remarkable amid the debris of these otherwise brutal Islanders teams.

7 – Pierre Turgeon/Kirk Muller Trade

In the Spring of 1995, Islanders general manager (GM) Don Maloney wanted to change the direction of the team and traded Turgeon and defenseman Vladimir Malakhov to the Canadiens for center Kirk Muller, defenseman Mathieu Schneider, and center Craig Darby. Turgeon had become the Isles’ heart and soul, while Kirk Muller was furious over the trade and initially refused to report to the team. When he finally did, his indifferent play forced the Islanders to deal him away for a negligible return (left winger Ken Belanger and goalie Damian Rhodes). The deal was a disaster and marked the beginning of a 23-year run without a playoffs series win for the franchise. 

6 – Fish Sticks Jersey

While the color scheme and jersey itself weren’t bad, the new Islanders logo that debuted before the 1995-96 season was a head-scratcher, with an Aquafresh toothpaste swirl and the Gorton’s fisherman logo – let the snickering begin. Perhaps the thing that irked fans most was that the Islanders had one of the best logos in the league, and changing it wasn’t on anyone’s radar. That it took two seasons for the Toothpaste Fisherman to head back out to sea needlessly prolonged the embarrassment.

5 – 1994 Rangers Playoff Sweep 

The Rangers dominated the Islanders so thoroughly in this series that when Ray Ferraro scored the team’s first goal of the series toward the end of the second period in Game 3 – almost eight full periods into the series – he slammed his stick against the glass behind the goal as if to say, FINALLY! The Isles were outscored 22-3 in the four-game sweep in what remains their worst playoff showing ever. Adding insult to injury: the Rangers went on to win their first Stanley Cup in 54 years.

4 – The Dynasty Ends

It had to end sometime, and end it did, with a thud on May 19, 1984, in a 5-2 loss in Game 5 at the Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton, Alberta. The Drive for Five was over. This kid named Wayne Gretzky led a bunch of other kids named Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, and Glenn Anderson to a 4-1 series win. They won a few more Cups too, and that Gretzky kid became a fairly solid NHLer.

3 – Lanny McDonald 1978 OT Winner

The 1977-78 season held such excellent promise. The Islanders had a conference-leading 111-point regular season and legit Stanley Cup aspirations. A quarterfinal match-up with the Toronto Maple Leafs was a mere stepping stone as the team was stacked up front and had the third-lowest goals-against total in the league. In what was a nasty and bitter seven-game series, Lanny McDonald’s overtime winner at the Coliseum knocked the Isles out and stunned the organization. Roger “Captain Video” Neilson out-coached the great Al Arbour in this one. It was a shocker. 

2 – John Spano Debacle

For those of you too young to recall the havoc John Spano wreaked on the Islanders and the NHL over 25 years ago, think of George Santos being named owner of the team tomorrow. This mess needs an entire article to properly recap (or a documentary like ESPN’s Big Shot), but here’s the Reader’s Digest version:

It all began in 1997, during the team’s silver-anniversary season. The 30-something Texas businessman with New York roots somehow managed to connive his way into signing a deal to purchase the Islanders for $165 million from then-owner John Pickett. When Spano failed to make his first $17 million payment to Pickett (he sent a $1,700 check, saying he accidentally left off a zero as a stalling tactic), things started to unravel. By July, federal prosecutors charged him with multiple counts of fraud. A team that was at the beginning of the worst stretch in franchise history hit rock bottom with this debacle.  

1 – Rangers Upset in 1979

It simply doesn’t get any worse than remembering a beleaguered Dennis Potvin sitting slumped against the boards in front of the Islanders’ bench at MSG in May of 1979 while the Rangers wildly celebrated their upset in Game 6 of the semifinals.

Phil Esposito New York Rangers
Phil Esposito, New York Rangers, circa 1980 (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)

The 1979 Islanders were ready to take on and beat the Canadiens in the Final that season, but a scrappy, rag-tag Rangers team led by Phil Esposito and John Davidson had other ideas. When you look at that roster (and I don’t recommend it, it only deepens the pain), it’s difficult to fathom why the Islanders struggled so much in this series. But yes, this pain was soothed (completely) over the next four seasons – no need to go into how and why.

While the 50th-anniversary rolls along, celebrating all the “good times” the franchise has enjoyed, it’s the moments listed above that make those happy ones feel so good.

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