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You can’t tell the story of the rise and success of the New York Islanders from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s without mentioning goaltender Billy Smith. Though he often split regular-season minutes with the likes of Chico Resch or Roland Melanson, among others, Smith was the go-to when the playoffs rolled around. “Battling Billy” was known for quite a bit during his time, but among his accolades lies an untouchable moment: the first goalie credited with a goal.
An Islander Trailblazer
Perhaps Smith was destined for greatness as soon as he was snagged by the Islanders in the 1972 expansion draft. With only five NHL games to his name, Smith joined a rag-tag group of Islanders for their inaugural 1972-73 season, collecting the franchise’s first win on Oct. 12, 1972, a 3-2 victory over the Los Angeles Kings.
From there, he and his partner, Resch, led the team to many other firsts throughout the 1970s, including their first-ever playoff victory and series win during the 1975 playoffs. As the 1970s wore on, Smith and the Islanders grew into a powerhouse, slowly building to the pinnacle of hockey during the 1979-80 season that ended in a Stanley Cup. It was during that season when another first took place for Smith, one that forged his name in hockey folklore forever.
Coming off an amazing regular season in 1978-79 in which they lost a paltry 15 games, the Islanders waltzed into the playoffs prepared to win hockey’s ultimate prize. In the first round, the Islanders cruised past the Chicago Blackhawks with a sweep, including shutouts in Games 2 and 3. However, they were shut down by the New York Rangers in the following round, losing the series 4-2.
The following season, the Islanders struggled to get things going early on. When they faced off against the Colorado Rockies on Nov. 28, 1979, the Islanders were 6-9-4, one of their worst starts since Al Arbour took over as coach during the 1973-74 season. Their bad luck continued against the Rockies as they found themselves down 4-3 in the third period. Little did they know the tying goal would be one for the history books.
“[Ramage] came in and took the shot and it bounced off of me and he picked it up in the corner,” Smith remembers years later. “Without looking, he fired it back to the point and it went all the way down the ice into the net. Who was the last guy on the other team to touch the puck? It was me, so I got credit for the goal.”
While he didn’t shoot the puck into the net – a goalie wouldn’t do that for another eight years, when Ron Hextall scored in 1987 – Smith’s touch of the puck prior to the Rockies’ blunder cemented the feat as the first goalie goal. The Islanders went on to lose the game 7-4, continuing their sluggish start. However, they began turning their season around in January, hitting the .500 mark, before making their run to the Stanley Cup.
Smith was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1993 and is considered one of the best goaltenders of all-time. His personal achievements are many, including a Vezina Trophy in 1982 along with a Conn Smythe Trophy and William M. Jennings Trophy, with partner Melanson, in 1983. His tenacity was an enormous part of the Islanders dynasty, including 19 consecutive playoff series wins. However, he’ll always be known for an amazing piece of NHL trivia – the first goal by a goalie.
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