The ’12 Days of Christmas’ is a classic holiday song first published in its current form in 1908. In a nod to the classic carol, join The Hockey Writers as we count down the 12 Days of Hockeymas. Each day, we will provide you with a piece of hockey history as we eagerly await the start of the 2020-21 NHL season. Today, we go back to the 11 most defining games in New York Islanders’ history.
11: The First Game, 1972
This may come off as cliche, but the first game in Islanders’ history will forever be more than just the first in franchise history. The birth of the franchise helped light the spark of hockey fandom on Long Island. Second and third-generation suburbanites dreamt of a professional sports franchise to call their own, and on Oct. 7, 1972, they got what they were waiting for.
The first game had the Islanders facing off against the league’s other newest team — the Atlanta Flames, which was deliberate according to Barry Wilner of The Associated Press.
Reasoning that it wouldn’t be too good an idea to have both expansion teams rubbed out on the same night of activity, the NHL schedule-maker pitted the newcomers against each other. The NHL figured there’d be plenty of losing for them the rest of the way.From “Maven’s Memories: Isles First Game in 1972,” NHL.com Oct. 4th, 2019.
The season was ultimately one to forget, as the Islanders went 12-60-6 in 1972-73. But, that last-place finish allowed them to pick first overall the following season, when they selected defenseman Denis Potvin, a foundational piece for the franchise. From there, Bill Torrey, the Islanders’ general manager from 1972 to 1992, started to assemble one of the greatest teams in NHL history.
10: First Playoff Series Win, 1975
A few short seasons after their first game, the Islanders found themselves in the playoffs against their cross-river rivals, the New York Rangers. The beginning of a fierce rivalry, they took Game 1 3-2 on April 8, 1975, at Madison Square Garden, but were shellacked by the Rangers in Game 2, falling 8-3.
Back at MSG for Game 3, things started great for the Islanders, only to find the puck in their net three straight times in the third period to tie the game. Luckily, it took the Islanders just 11 seconds to end the game in overtime, as J.P. Parise stunned the hometown crowd, advancing the Islanders in a series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
9: The Start of a Comeback, 1975
After defeating the Rangers in the preliminary round, the Islanders continued their first playoff run against the Penguins. The upstart Islanders fell to 3-0 in the series, and, to this point in NHL history, only one team had come back from a 3-0 series deficit to win a best-of-seven series — the 1941-42 Toronto Maple Leafs against the Detroit Red Wings. Before Game 4, Islanders’ head coach, Al Arbour, had a message for his team.
If there’s anyone here who doesn’t feel we can come back and beat those guys, get off the ice immediately.Al Arbour, quoted from Maven’s Memories | NHL.com
Entering the third period, the game was tied 1-1. Like a lot of games on this list, this win, and later the completed comeback, helped launch something special on Long Island. The Islanders would go on to make a number of changes between 1975 and their first Stanley Cup run in 1980, but this win was the beginning of a team on the rise.
8: Fight Night, 2011
In the only regular-season game on this list, what has been referred to as “Fight Night at the Coliseum” by many was much more than their 9-3 thrashing of the Penguins. The game came during the dog days of a difficult season, one where a TSN analyst called the Islanders “the doormat of the NHL.” And while the team admittedly struggled, the disrespect throughout the 2010-11 season was at a boiling point, and on Feb. 11, 2011, the steam bellowed out from the kettle.
“For us, it’s been really frustrating all season long,” Zenon Konopka said. “There’s been a few things out of our control, and a few things in our control. It wasn’t just a direct hit at Pittsburgh, they just kind of fell in the way. It was a lot emotions built up. It goes to demonstrate how close a bunch we have in here.”From “Islanders 9, Penguins 3,” by Dyan LeBourdais on NHL.com 2/12/11
Just nine days after a Penguin victory that included an orbital bone injury to goaltender Rick DiPietro from a fight with Brent Johnson and a concussion to Blake Comeau due to a hit from behind delivered by Maxime Talbot, the two teams met again for a much different game.
In the lineup that evening, the Islanders dressed Michael Haley, Trevor Gilles, Matt Martin, and Konopka, signaling a message was going to be sent one way or another. But that message didn’t conclude neatly on that cold February night on Long Island. Though it would take the Islanders a few more seasons to get on the right path and nearly all of the personnel have since changed — save for Josh Bailey and Martin — this game provided the team with a rallying point created a special bond between the players that would eventually turn the franchise around.
7: 2019 Round 1, Game 1
The Islanders’ 2018-19 season was dead on arrival, at least that’s what analysts would have you believe heading into the campaign. After John Tavares’ departure over the summer and the only major additions coming behind the bench in the form of Stanley Cup-winning head coach, Barry Trotz, it was easy to fall into the trap. However, the Islanders had different plans.
After being the worst defensive team in the league the season before and a fall from grace following two 100-plus-point seasons, Trotz transformed the Islanders into a defensive juggernaut. At times, they led the stacked Metropolitan Division and finished the season pair up with the Penguins in the first round.
Even with the Islanders’ success during the season, many still had the Penguins walking away with the victory. Those who did choose the Islanders to win certainly didn’t see what was coming — perhaps no one did. With a minute remaining in the third period of Game 1, the voices got louder when the Penguins tied the game at three.
“Here we go. The Islanders are going to blow it.”
Not this time. The Islanders finished off Game 1 in dramatic fashion in overtime.
Bailey’s goal sparked an Islanders squad who was already playing with a chip on their shoulder. They went on to sweep the Penguins and move on to the second round. Though their journey would end there, it was an important moment for this team, helping them believe in one another and set them up for future success.
6: 1983 Cup Final, Game 4
In what would be the Islanders’ last Stanley Cup victory, the team finished off the young, up-start Edmonton Oilers in a convincing four-to-nothing sweep. The grizzled veterans — led by Hall of Fame head coach, Al Arbour — had their hands full but managed to hold off Wayne Gretzky and company. The Islanders cemented themselves in the history books as a true dynasty, humbling and haunting opponents for the early part of the 1980s and let the world know hockey was here to stay on Long Island.
No one was immune to the Islanders’ greatness. Even Gretzky referred to a moment following the game as one of the more important to him and his Oilers’ teammates.
“We walked by their locker room in the corridor and saw after they won they were too beat up to really enjoy it and savor the victory at that moment,” said Gretzky. “We were able to walk out of there pretty much scot free. We had so much respect for the Islanders players and the Islanders teams that we learned immediately you have to take it to another level in order to win a Stanley Cup. And that’s what we did. We learned from it and often credit for the Islanders players and Islanders teams for teaching us exactly what it’s all about and how hard it is to win.”From “Gretzky Recalls Great Rivalry,” NHL.com 3/8/09
Having this experience behind them, the Oilers bested the Islanders the following year. The Islanders handed the torch to the NHL’s next dynasty after winning 19 straight playoff series to that point and were exhausted in the process.
5: 2013 Round 1, Game 4
The shortened 2013 season provided the Islanders with a chance to get back into the playoffs, albeit against the mighty Penguins (sense a theme yet?). It was also an opportunity for the team to take another step in the right direction after continued struggles. Down in the series 2-1, the Islanders gave the Penguins a scare, tying up the series at two-a-piece.
Perhaps it’s because I attended the game, but one particular moment that stands out to me in Game 4 was Casey Cizikas’ goal in the final minute and 17 seconds of the game. I remember the Coliseum absolutely erupting following that goal. It had been years since I, or anyone really, had heard the building that loud. It was memorable for everyone.
4: 1993 Conference Semi-Finals
The Islanders’ playoff run in 1993 was a story in itself, but it was a time that haunted the franchise for over two decades. The team entered the series against the defending back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Penguins without top scorer Pierre Turgeon, who was injured after a late hit from Dale Hunter in one of the dirtiest plays in NHL history.
With the Islanders on their heals, they took Game 6 to force a series-deciding matchup. A back-and-forth affair, the Islanders and Penguins traded pairs of goals throughout the game. The Penguins forced overtime with a late third-period goal while outshooting the Islanders 45 to 20 in the process. In overtime, Ray Ferraro found David Volek on a two-on-one, and the rest is history.
This game, and the subsequent series against the eventual Cup champion Montreal Canadiens, was the last gasp for Arbour’s career. The following season, the Islanders were swept by the Rangers, who went on to win the Cup that season after a 54-year drought. Arbour went on to retire following the 1993-94 season, ending an amazing era of Islanders hockey and cementing himself as one the league’s greatest coaches. This goal marked the last playoff thrill for Islander fans for nearly a decade and was the true end for Arbour’s Drive for Five.
3: The Bates Goal
In 2002, Islanders fans were all-in on the team’s first playoff appearance since 1993-94. After clinching the playoffs in dramatic fashion, a 5-4 nailbiter of a victory over the Washington Capitals in the 78th game of the season, the Islanders had a chance to finally turn the page on their tumultuous recent history.
The moment that stands out for most Islanders fans from this era is the Shawn Bates penalty-shot goal, which took place with 2:30 remaining in the third period of a tie game. Bates came screaming down the left wing after receiving a pass from Alexi Yashin. Former Islander, Bryan McCabe, tripped Bates and, well — we’ll let you watch for yourself.
Ken Morrow, an Islanders defenseman during the early 1980s, said, “I’ve never heard the building louder than when Shawn scored that penalty shot goal.” The goal, the first penalty-shot goal in Islanders’ playoff history, evened up the series and gave fans hope that the team could continue their magical run to the second round. Even though they went on to lose in seven games, this goal, and the game overall, is cemented in the hearts and minds of modern Islander fans.
2: Tavares Breaks the Drought
Current fans struggle with Tavares, who left Long Island for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs in the summer of 2018 as a free agent. However you feel about that particular moment, it’s hard to deny the weight that was lifted off fans’ collective shoulders when Tavares scored in double-overtime to propel them to the second round for the first time in 23 years.
Like the sweep against the Penguins in 2019, you can’t look at this victory in a vacuum, immediately turning to the fact they lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round that spring. This game was important not only because they broke their 23-year-old drought, but because it provided yet another building block for the team, giving them momentum despite some roster turnover. They were learning how to win.
1: The First Cup
After a disappointing 1978-79 season ending in defeat at the hands of the Rangers in the second round, the Islanders felt they needed one more piece to get them over the hump. In what many regard as one of the best trade deadline acquisitions in league history, general manager, Bill Torey, added sniper Butch Goring to formalize a roster that would go on to win four straight Stanley Cups.
Cruising through the 1980 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Islanders lost just four games heading into the final. Up 3-2 over the Philadelphia Flyers, the Islanders had a chance to win the series in overtime of Game 6 and, boy, did they deliver.
This moment, and most of the Islanders’ dynasty-era, is ingrained in the hearts and minds of fans across multiple generations. It turned players into legends and put Long Island at the center of the hockey universe.
There are so many games that mean a lot to the Islanders and their fans, but these, in particular, were important for more than the victories; they helped define the franchise and, oftentimes, were the stepping stones for the next level of achievement. What games do you think are the most defining for this franchise?
Want more Islanders content? Check out the Nassaumen Hockey Podcast, hosted by The Hockey Writers authors James Nichols and Jon Zella. Follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts and on Twitter and Instagram @nassaumenhockey.
Jon Zella is a 30-year-old Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.