The 1976-77 season was another stepping stone campaign for the Islanders as they were building towards their Stanley Cup dynasty. The Isles finished the regular season 47-21-12 for 106 points, good for the second-best record in the NHL. Their first-round opponent in the Stanley Cup Playoffs would be the Chicago Blackhawks in a best of three series.
Given the matchup, the series was a mismatch on paper as the Blackhawks had the worst record (26-43-11 63 points) of any team that made the playoffs. The Islanders, coming off of a run to the semifinals a season before, were heavy favorites but they weren’t about to take anything for granted.
“You gotta be scared in a way,” Islanders Captain Clark Gillies told the New York Times. “You can’t afford to lose a game or you’re finished. If you have a pretty decent season like we did, if you lose in the first round it would seem like it all went to waste.”
(Clark Gillies was the Islanders Captain during the 1976-77 season)
Aside from the actual matchup and pre-series chatter, there was an added and unique storyline that created a bit of attention. As it turns out, there would be a scheduling conflict that would force the Islanders, Blackhawks and NHL to come up with a solution that would satisfy all parties.
The three dates for the Islanders/Blackhawks series were to be Game One on Tuesday April 5th at Nassau Coliseum, Game Two in Chicago on Thursday April 7th, and a Game three, if necessary, at the Coliseum on Saturday April 9th. But Chicago Stadium, the former home of the Blackhawks and Bulls, was booked for Bulls home games on April 5th and Friday April 8th while the rock group Led Zeppelin had the arena booked for Wednesday April 6th, Thursday April 7th and April 9th.
Without their home arena available, the Blackhawks proposed a neutral site for game two on April 7th, but Islanders General Manager Bill Torrey would have none of that. “The Architect” insisted on following the NHL by-law that prohibited a deciding game of a Stanley Cup playoff series from being played at a neutral site. So, on the eve of game one, in consultation with NHL President Clarence Campbell, the decision was made to play the whole series at Nassau Coliseum.
Well, we certainly know now just how great Bill Torrey was, not just with draft picks, signing players and making trades, but also with a sharp understanding of the rule book. He was going to make sure that the Islanders weren’t getting the short end of the stick. And in this case, they wound up getting the the entire stick because the rules were clear that game two needed to be on Long Island.
(Islanders Hall of Fame General Manager Bill Torrey)
But the schedule reshuffling wasn’t done there.
Once it was determined that the Islanders would be hosting the entire series, the Nassau Coliseum had to clear Thursday April 7th on its calendar. This was apparently a little easier to take care of than what the Blackhawks were facing in Chicago as all the Nassau Coliseum had to do was boot a Bugs Bunny Easter show out of the arena to accommodate Islanders/Blackhawks game two.
“What’s Up Doc? It’s Islanders season…not wabbit season!”
Ok now back to the story.
The Islanders won game one beating the Blackhawks 5-2. Then it was onto game two and because this was technically a home game for Chicago, the Islanders wore their away (at the time) blue uniforms at the Coliseum while the Blackhawks wore white. Although it was not supposed to be a home game, Islanders ticket holders were instructed to use their tickets marked “home game two”.
Another bonus for Islanders fans, especially someone like me living in Queens without cable television, was that because it was a “road” game, it would be telecast on Channel 9. I vividly remember watching the game that night and hearing former Islanders broadcaster Tim Ryan explaining the situation and saying something to effect of “the Islanders are wearing blue but we are at the Nassau Coliseum”.
The Islanders squeaked out a 2-1 victory in game two over the Blackhawks to finish up the two-game sweep. They would go on to sweep the Buffalo Sabres four games to none in the quarterfinals before losing in the semifinals to the Montreal Canadiens four games to two. For the Islanders, it was another step closer to what would be arguably the greatest dynasty in sports history.
Nassau Coliseum has always been home sweet home for the Islanders, but in the 1977 playoffs, it was also home sweet home on the road at “The Barn” for a series clinching win.