It was April 11, 1975. The Islanders and Rangers were tied at one game apiece in a best-of-three series.
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The Islanders’ story — which added another chapter Friday night at Tampa’s Amalie Arena with a Game 7 against the Lightning for the right to go to the Stanley Cup Final — began, in earnest, on another Friday night, in another do-or-die playoff game.
That was 46 years ago. It was April 11, 1975. The Islanders and Rangers were tied at one game apiece in one of those old best-of three preliminary series that used to help fill out the main Cup playoff draw. That series, like this one, had already been an odd path for the Islanders. They’d stolen home ice in Game 1 — as in this series — surprising the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, 3-2.
They’d been left for dead — as in this series — after getting their doors blown off, the Rangers righting themselves and chasing the Islanders out of Game 2, 8-3, in the first NHL playoff game ever contested at Nassau Coliseum. There would be others.
As the Islanders reported for work at the Garden for Game 3 that night they were met by a coach, Al Arbour, whose message was undoubtedly similar to the one Barry Trotz had planned for his team Friday night.
“Nothing else matters except scoring one goal more than they do,” Arbour told his team in the visitor’s dressing room. “Don’t worry about the crowd. Don’t worry about the stakes. Worry about scoring one more goal than they do, and then we’ll celebrate back in this room in a couple of hours.”
It is often forgotten just how improbable that first Islanders run really was. Just two years earlier they’d been, in essence, the 1962 Mets on skates, finishing 12-60-6. They were outscored 347-170, allowed eight or more goals in a game on seven different occasions and in the next-to-last game of the season, lost 10-2 in Philadelphia.
Things weren’t much better the next year (19-41-18). But then a few things happened. Arbour was hired. Denis Potvin, in his second year, became an All-Star. The Islanders added a couple of rookies, Clark Gillies and Bob Bourne. Bob Nystrom scored 27 goals. And a terrific 1-2 goalie rotation of Billy Smith and Chico Resch blossomed. They went 33-25-22, stayed in the playoff hunt all year, then qualified on the season’s last day by beating the Rangers in the Garden, 6-4.
“Learning how to win,” Resch said many years later, “is actually almost as much fun as the winning itself.”
Still, feel-good as all of that was, nobody expected the Islanders to escape Game 3, not with 17,500 rabid Rangers fans waiting for them, not with the remnants of the 1972 Cup finalists still in place for the Blueshirts: Rod Gilbert and Brad Park, Jean Ratelle and Walt Tkaczuk, Gilles Villemure and Eddie Giacomin. Emile Francis’ club figured to have one last run in them, and this was it.
Then the Islanders jumped to a 3-0 lead on two goals by Potvin and one by Gillies, and the Garden was stunned into silence. Giacomin was summoned to replace Villemure. The Islanders, not knowing any better, were already dreaming of Pittsburgh and the second round.
“Bad idea,” Resch said.
It was. The Rangers came back, Bill Fairbairn tallying twice. Then, 14 seconds after that, Steve Vickers beat Smith to tie the game at 3-3 at 13:41.
Post colleague Larry Brooks, who was in the Garden as a fan that night, who has seen and covered well over a thousand Rangers games at the Garden, remembered Friday afternoon: “When they tied it, it was bedlam. As loud as it ever was.”
It was still raucous when the teams emerged for sudden death. As he prepared to step onto the ice, Islanders defenseman Bert Marshall, 31 and already 10 years into his career, admitted he had an epiphany: “This is hockey. This is what the game’s about. I was experiencing the ultimate thrill. I smiled to myself as the puck dropped to the ice and told myself: ‘I’m not going to let a negative thought into my mind.’ ”
Soon enough, that smile was something else. Jude Drouin won the faceoff from Ratelle, pushing the puck back to Marshall. Marshall slid the puck to his defensive partner, Dave Lewis, and after slickly maneuvering over the red line, Lewis dumped the puck in the Rangers zone. Vickers gained control and tried to make a pass, but Drouin intercepted.
Drouin passed cross-ice in the direction of J.P. Parise. The rest, as they say …
And the Islanders’ first-ever do-or-die playoff game ended in glee. Forty-six years later, in a different enemy arena, they hoped for a similar script.
This story originally appeared on: NyPost - Author:Mike Vaccaro