The New York Islanders just advanced to the final four for the 13th time in their franchise history. It is the second straight season the team from Long Island has found themselves this deep in the playoffs and will match up against a familiar foe, the Tampa Bay Lightning. During the 2019-20 Eastern Conference Final in Edmonton, the Lightning beat the Islanders to advance to the Stanley Cup Final, where they won it all. The two teams meet will again, with New York out to avenge their six-game loss while carving their names in the record book.
If you didn’t know, the blue and orange have a losing record in the final four competition, 32-34, which equals a 0.484 winning percentage. Since the NHL expansion in 1967, the Isles currently have the 16th best win percentage in the third round, with the fifth-most appearances, trailing Chicago (18), Montreal (17), Boston (16), and Philadelphia (16). So if the team wants to advance into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1984, they will have to conquer the ghosts of playoffs past.
We Meet Again, Old Friend
The National Hockey League expanded from six to twelve teams in 1967. The format for the playoffs also got a makeover since the league now consisted of two conferences. This new setup provided us with the first consecutive semifinal matchups in 1971 and 1972, which featured two Original Six teams, the Chicago Blackhawks and the New York Rangers. The Blackhawks won a seven-game series (1971), and the Rangers got revenge with a sweep the following season (1972). A few years later, in 1976 and 1977, the Bruins, Flyers, Canadiens, and Islanders became the first teams to meet in consecutive conference semifinals. Philadelphia beat Boston in 1976 in five games (4-1), with the Bruins returning the favour with a four-game sweep in 1977. All these semifinals storylines tie in with the 1976 and 1977 Islanders, who were not as fortunate as their predecessors.
After a handful of iconic playoff moments during their 1975 run to the conference finals, the Isles returned to the post-season in 1976 and made quick work of the Vancouver Canucks in a two-game sweep. Their next opponent in the quarterfinals was the Buffalo Sabres, who were eliminated in six games, setting up a semifinal matchup with the Canadiens. Unfortunately, New York’s playoff magic ran out as Montreal stopped them in five games. The following season (1977) provided the Islanders with an opportunity to flip the script.
The team was firing on all cylinders with wins over Chicago (2-0) and Buffalo (4-0) to set up a rematch with the Canadiens in the conference finals. Sadly the boys from Long Island cooled off quickly, dropping three out of the first four games, two by shutout, to the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Only an overtime win in Game 5 prolonged their season for another game. With the loss in Game 6, the Islanders had become the first team to play an opponent in back-to-back conference finals and come out on the losing end both times.
The Islanders were the lone team with such a distinction for 10 years, until the Detroit Red Wings became the second team to drop consecutive semifinal matchups to the Edmonton Oilers in 1987 and 1988. The Red Wings also became the second team outside New York to lose to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions in back-to-back semifinals. Boston grew the list to three teams with consecutive losses to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992, who also captured titles in those particular seasons.
Several Western Conference powerhouses provided us with some fantastic hockey to close out the 1990s. In 1996 and 1997, the Colorado Avalanche swapped series wins with the Red Wings en route to their respective championships. Then, in 1999, the Avalanche became the fourth team to drop consecutive conference final appearances against the Dallas Stars in two classic seven-game tilts.
It wasn’t until 2013 when we witnessed another set of teams meet consecutively in the (Western) conference final. That season Chicago eliminated the Los Angeles Kings in five games before capturing their second championship in four seasons. In 2014, the same teams met again, and Los Angeles returned the favour in six games before winning their second Cup in three seasons.
Decade of Dominance
Deep inside the Islanders playoff history are numerous back-to-back conference final appearances, which occurred right before the dynasty took over the hockey world. In 1975, while members of the Clarence Campbell Conference, the Isles advanced through the Preliminary Round against the Rangers (2-1) before engaging the Penguins in one of the NHL’s most famous playoff series. Down 3-0, the Islanders reeled off four consecutive wins to become the second team in history (Toronto 1942) to win a series after dropping the first three games. In their first-ever conference final appearance against Philadelphia, the Isles didn’t make things easy for themselves, falling behind 3-0 again, only to rally and force a Game 7, which they lost 4-1.
To close the 1970s, the Islanders only missed out on the 1978 conference finals before embarking on one of the professional sport’s most incredible runs as contenders and champions (1979-1984). Armed with the memories of defeats to the Flyers (4-3) in 1975, Canadiens (4-1) in 1976, Canadiens again (4-2) in 1977, and the Rangers (4-2) in 1979, the Isles went on to run the table in the Prince of Wales Conference.
In a playoff run unparalleled in history, the team from Long Island took care of business in five straight conference finals, starting with the Sabres (4-2) in 1980, then the Rangers (4-0) in 1981, the Nordiques (4-0) in 1982, and the Bruins (4-2) in 1983, before finally finding success against the Canadiens (4-2) in 1984. However, when the dust finally settled on one of the league’s most impressive winning streaks, 19 consecutive playoff series wins, the Islanders stopped making noise in the playoffs. It took nine seasons before they punched another ticket to the final four, 1993, which ended up being against their archrivals, the Canadiens, who were marching toward their 23rd title.
Time to Right Some Wrongs
This upcoming 2021 conference final will mark the fourth time Tampa Bay and Long Island meet. The Bolts took an opening-round series (4-1) in 2004 before capturing their first championship. In 2016, the two teams met again in the second round, a 4-1 win for the Florida-based team. Then, of course, was last season’s conference final, in which Tampa won 4-2 in the bubble. Unfortunately, despite their dominance over the Islanders, the Bolts are far from perfect at this late stage of the playoffs, with a 21-20 record (0.520%) as a final four competitor.
The Islanders have a chance to break a curse that has plagued the Prince of Wales/Eastern Conference for decades now. Not only will they have an opportunity to slay the dragon, but they will also have a chance to lay to rest the bad memories of past generations. The mission in front of them will not be easy since only four teams in league history have been able to outwit their opponent a second time around in such a high-stakes matchup. The Islanders teams who lost the previous series are not the same team about to hit the ice on Sunday afternoon. However, if the boys from the island pull this victory off, the noise will be so loud that the scribes will have difficulty focusing on entering their names in the record book as the first Eastern Conference team to flip the script.
Ryan Gagne is back for his second tour of duty with The Hockey Writers. In 2021 he wrote about the New York Islanders and now will embrace the challenge of covering the Calgary Flames. The best part of this new assignment is Ryan currently lives in Edmonton and will get to see both sides of the Battle of Alberta up close and personal. None of this will make much sense since he was born and raised in New England and the Boston Bruins are his still team.