Last Tuesday the New York Islanders completed a four-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was the franchise’s first sweep in over three decades.
While this is a new sight for younger fans, the Islanders franchise is no stranger to a best of seven sweeps. Between the years 1977 and 1983, the Isles completed a best of seven sweep on six different occasions.
So what’s the best sweep the Islanders have ever pulled off? In order to decide that we need to look at three things: strength of the opponent, historical significance, and overall domination. Next to each team is their point total for the season, as well as the goal differential that the Islanders won by.
So without further ado, here are the best sweeps in franchise history:
#7 – 1979 Quarterfinals: New York Islanders (116) vs. Chicago Black Hawks (73) +11
Coming in at number seven on our list is the 1979 Quarterfinals. The ‘79 Islanders entered the postseason with high expectations. They had more points in the regular season than any other team in the league. A first-round victory was all but expected from this team, and they did not disappoint.
Against a Black Hawks team that featured future Hall of Fame goaltender Tony Esposito, the Islanders made quick work of Chicago. The Isles won Game 1 easily by the score of 6-2 behind a Mike Bossy hat trick.
Game 2 proved to be the closest game of the series, as the Islanders’ own future Hall-of-Fame goalie, Billy Smith, battled Esposito in a match that would see both teams scoreless at the end of regulation. Bossy’s fourth goal of the series would decide Game 2 and put the Isles ahead two games to zero heading to Chicago.
Home-ice advantage proved to be a non-factor for the Black Hawks, as they were shutout for the second game in a row by Smith. The Islanders scored four goals of their own to take Game 3 handly.
Up 3-0, the Islanders slammed the door shut with a 3-1 victory as Bossy added his fifth and final goal of the series. Coach Al Arbour and his squad would go on to lose to the hated New York Rangers in six games in the semifinals, falling short of their lavish expectations going into the playoffs.
#6 – 1977 Quarterfinals: New York Islanders (106) vs. Buffalo Sabres (104) +6
What puts this sweep ahead of 1979’s is the strength of their opponent. The 1976-77 Buffalo Sabres finished two points short of the Islanders’ total. They were led by Hall-of-Fame center Gilbert Perreault, and this was expected by many to be a close series.
While each of the four games was close, the Islanders won them all. They won both Games 1 and 2 at the Nassau Coliseum by the score 4-2. When the series went to Buffalo, the games became even closer. Behind a two-goal performance from center Jude Drouin, the Islanders took Game 3 by a score of 4-3. They won Game 4 by the same score. Right wing Billy Harris and Hall-of-Fame center Bryan Trottier led all scorers with six points each.
The ‘77 Quarterfinals would be the first sweep in franchise history. It was also the closest, as the Islanders won each game by an average of just 1.5 goals.
#5 – 2019 First Round: New York Islanders (103) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (100) +8
The number five best sweep is still very fresh in our minds. Despite coming into the series with home-ice, the Islanders were viewed as underdogs. Rightfully so, might I add, as the Penguins featured a core that won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. Led by perennial All-Stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and goaltender Matt Murray, the Pens seemed primed for another run, despite a relatively lackluster regular season.
The Islanders quickly proved that it was not to be, winning a back-and-forth Game 1 by a 4-3 score on a Josh Bailey overtime goal. Game 2 was another close contest, as forward Jordan Eberle broke a 1-1 tie about eight minutes into the third period, and Josh Bailey added a power-play goal to put the finishing touches on a 3-1 victory.
Game 3 in Pittsburgh saw the Islanders record four unanswered goals after letting up a first-period score to Pens’ left wing Garrett Wilson. They took that match 4-1 and were on the verge of their first sweep since 1983.
The Islanders found themselves down early once again in Game 4, but Eberle added his fourth goal of the series to tie the game up. The Isles took a 2-1 lead on a Brock Nelson goal towards the end of the first period. Coach Barry Trotz’s team would buckle down defensively and complete the sweep, winning 3-1.
How dominant was the Isles’ defense during this matchup? Over four games, the Penguins led for a total of 4 minutes and 51 seconds. Their star player, Crosby, was held to just one point over the entire series.
#4 – 1982 Conference Finals: New York Islanders (118) vs Quebec Nordiques (82) +9
With a trip to their third straight Stanley Cup on the line, the Islanders brought their A-game when they faced off against Hall-of-Fame center Peter Stastny and the Nordiques.
The Isles took the first two games easily by the scores of 4-1 and 5-2 on Long Island. Game 3 in Quebec would be the closest of the contests, as an offensive game finished regulation with the two teams deadlocked in a 4-4 tie. Center Wayne Merrick played the hero in overtime, tallying the game-winner after about 17 minutes of scoreless hockey.
The Isles completed the sweep and clinched their third consecutive Stanley Cup berth with a 4-2 victory in Game 4. Bossy led all skaters with four goals and seven total points, and the Islanders were matched up with the Vancouver Canucks with a chance for a three-peat, but more on that later…
#3 – 1981 Semifinals New York Islanders (110) vs New York Rangers (74) +14
Here’s a riddle for you: What’s better than clinching a Stanley Cup berth via sweep? How about sweeping your rivals in a dominating fashion to clinch a Stanley Cup berth?
That dream became a reality during the 1981 Playoffs when the Isles were matched up with their crosstown counterparts, the Rangers.
Led by coach Herb Brooks, a man who was best known for his achievements in Lake Placid, the Rags didn’t stand a chance against an Islanders team in the middle of a dynasty. The Islanders battered their opponent by a combined score of 22-8 in just four games. This was by all accounts, an absolute beatdown. After winning Game 1 5-2, the Isles scored seven goals in Game 2, including two each for Bossy and center Butch Goring, en route to a 7-3 victory.
It was more of the same once the series moved to Madison Square Garden. Smith stifled the Rangers offense in a 5-1 Game 3 victory. Game 4 saw Bossy notch his fourth and fifth goals of the series, as the 5-2 Islanders win sent them to the Stanley Cup for the second straight season.
The Isles’ balanced scoring attack was on full display during the series, as evidenced by seven players averaging at least a point per game during the four-game stretch. The Islanders stayed hot and went on to beat the Minnesota North Stars in five games to win their second championship in as many seasons.
#2 – 1982 Stanley Cup Final New York Islanders (118) vs. Vancouver Canucks (77) +8
The 1981-82 Islanders clearly did not have the time to play any extra games. After sweeping the Nordiques to win the Prince of Wales Conference, the Islanders faced another Canadian opponent in the Stanley Cup. The Canucks would suffer the same fate that Quebec did the round before.
Game 1 was a high scoring affair that saw Vancouver take a 5-4 lead late in the third period, only to give up a game-tying goal to Bossy, his second of the game, to force overtime. In the final seconds of the first OT period, Bossy once again found the back of the net for the game-winner, completing his second career playoff hat trick.
Vancouver blew another third-period lead in Game 2, giving up three unanswered goals to fall 6-4. Down 2-0 with the series shifting to Vancouver, the Canucks needed to make a statement in Game 3. Smith had other ideas. After underwhelming performances in Games 1 and 2 by the Isles’ goaltender, the eventual four-time Stanley Cup champion managed a shutout in his team’s 3-0 victory. Game 4 featured another two goals from Bossy in the Islanders’ 3-1 victory.
Bossy, who tied a Stanley Cup record with seven goals in just four games, won the Conn Smythe Trophy, the award given to the most valuable player of the playoffs. With this championship, the Islanders cemented themselves as a dynasty.
#1 – 1983 Stanley Cup Final New York Islanders (96) vs. Edmonton Oilers (106) +11
The ‘83 Stanley Cup would be an important one for multiple reasons. First, it would be the fourth and final championship that the have Islanders won to date. Next, it was the first-ever Stanley Cup appearance by some kid named Wayne Gretzky.
Despite having won the previous three Cups, the Islanders almost came into this matchup as underdogs. They had endured a good-not-great regular season, tallying their lowest point total since the beginning of the dynasty. It seemed that all the extra playoff games they were playing season after season might finally have caught up to them.
The Oilers, on the other hand, were red-hot. Behind Gretzky and fellow Hall-of-Famers Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, and Paul Coffey, Edmonton enjoyed a very successful regular season, finishing with the highest point total in the Clarence Campbell Conference. They then ripped through the playoffs, winning 11 of 12 games en route to a Stanley Cup appearance.
It was the Oilers who had home-ice advantage for this series, and it was looking like the Isles’ reign was coming to an end.
Apparently, no one had told the Islanders that. Smith turned in a masterful Game 1 performance in Edmonton, shutting out Gretzky and company in a 2-0 Islanders win. Game 2 featured more offense than the previous match, with five different Islanders scoring goals and Smith turning in a solid performance in a 6-3 victory.
Up 2-0 going back to Long Island, you can probably see where this is going. Game 3 was a 5-1 drubbing and the Islanders won Game 4 by a 4-2 score for their fourth and most recent Stanley Cup championship.
Gretzky’s Oilers would exact revenge the following season, meeting the Isles in the Stanley Cup Final once again. This time, the Oilers won in five, and a new dynasty was birthed.
BONUS: 1975 Quarterfinals: New York Islanders (88) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (89)
In just the third year of the franchise’s existence, thanks to Arbour’s coaching expertise and savvy drafting by general manager Bill Torrey and the Islanders clinched their first playoff berth. After winning the best of three preliminary round against the Rangers, the Islanders faced Pittsburgh in the Quarterfinals. The Isles lost the first two games in Pittsburgh 5-4 and 3-1. When the series came to Long Island, things didn’t seem to improve for the Islanders as they lost Game 3 6-4.
With their backs against the wall on the brink of elimination, the Islanders were able to force the series back to Pittsburgh with a 3-1 victory in Game 4. The Islanders managed to win Game 5 by the score of 4-2. Game 6 would be played at the Nassau Coliseum. The Islanders fed off of the home crowd’s energy and behind a pair of goals from left wing Garry Howatt, evened the series at three games apiece, putting the Isles on the verge of the improbable.
The decisive Game 7 was a battle of goalies between the Islanders’ Smith and the Pens’ Gary Inness. The game’s lone goal was scored by Isles’ captain Ed Westfall, and the Islanders had completed the only reverse-sweep in franchise history.
So can the Islanders pull off another sweep during these playoffs? We’ll probably have to wait and see who they’re playing in the next round before we make any of those predictions. Until then, enjoy the rest of Round 1.
Ryan is a Long Island, NY native who is currently studying broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland. He’s a New York Islanders Writer at The Hockey Writers. You can find his work on other sports on Medium.com