When you look at the rafters of the Nassau Coliseum, you see banners for the four Stanley Cup Championships that the Islanders won from 1980 to 1983. But what you also see are banners for achievements like “Patrick Division Champions” in 1977-78 and “Regular Season Champions” in 1978-79. While the dynasty years and a run of 19 straight playoff series wins will always be considered one of the greatest if not the greatest accomplishment by a franchise in sports history, we’re probably not talking about it without the prior playoff failures.
The Islanders went through a few years of painful post-season losses before Bobby Nystrom scored at 7:11 of overtime on May 24th, 1980. That’s when Lord Stanley finally took up residency on Long Island and now Islanders Country is hoping that history can repeat itself.
“You have to learn from experiences and trust me you learn more from losing sometimes than you do from winning because it hardens you,” said Islanders Head Coach Barry Trotz who won a Stanley Cup during his fourth and final season with the Washington Capitals back in 2017-18 after three seasons of losing in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
“You understand the moments a little bit better and then you get to a point where you don’t want to lose anymore.”
The Islanders didn’t make the playoffs during their first two years of existence in 1972-73 and 1973-74. Then in 1974-75, the Islanders stunned the Rangers in the opening round, rallied from a 3-0 deficit in the quarterfinals to beat the Penguins in seven games and then almost did that again in the semifinals coming back from 3-0 down to tie the series but lost game seven to the Flyers in Philadelphia. In 1975-76 and 1976-77, the Islanders returned to the semifinals and both times lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Montreal Canadiens.
The Islanders made the Stanley Cup Semifinals three years in a row but couldn’t get to the Stanley Cup Finals. However, coming up short during those post-seasons pale in comparison to the painful defeats that would lie ahead for the Islanders in the two seasons leading up to the dynasty.
In 1977-78, the Islanders won the Patrick Division championship and were matched up with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the quarterfinals. The series went to a 7th and deciding game at Nassau Coliseum, but the Maple Leafs prevailed on an overtime goal scored by Lanny McDonald.
In 1978-79, the Islanders were regular season champions as the team with the most points in the National Hockey League. After a quarterfinal victory over the Chicago Black Hawks, the Islanders were upset by the Rangers in the semifinals as the Blueshirts prevailed four games to two.
At that point, one had to wonder if the Islanders were every going to break through and make it to the Stanley Cup Finals and eventually win it all.
“There’s a lot of stories like that through the NHL,” said Trotz who also referenced the tough playoff losses that the Tampa Bay Lightning suffered before winning the Stanley Cup last season in the bubble.
“Every step that you take is part of the journey. If it was easy, then as they say everyone would do it. It’s not that easy. Sometimes you’re not going to go as far as you think you can and you have to harden”.
Time will tell if playoff heartache will eventually turn the current Islanders group into Stanley Cup Champions.
Before Trotz took over as Islanders Head Coach, the Isles had gone two seasons without making the playoffs. But in 2018-19, his first season behind the Islanders’ bench, Trotz led the Isles back to the playoffs and promptly swept the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round. The first painful moment for this group came in round two when they were swept by the Carolina Hurricanes.
Last season, when the NHL season returned to play for the post-season in the middle of the pandemic, Trotz and the Islanders marched through the bubble with series wins over the Florida Panthers, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals. The series ended when the Lightning won game six in overtime and that meant another painful end to the season for the Islanders.
“You have to learn from it and you have to go back and push to get to the next level,” said Trotz. “You sometimes have to have that heartache and understanding of what you have to push through because as much as it is physically, it’s more of a mental approach in the playoffs.”
This season, Barry Trotz and the Islanders are back where they left off last season as they are back in the NHL’s final four and, once again, they are matched up against the Tampa Bay Lightning. This time, the Islanders are trying to flip the script and advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since the 1983-84 season when the dynasty came to an end with a loss to the Edmonton Oilers.
The dynasty was born with a stunning run to the semifinals in 1975 but also with some painful playoff failures along the way. We’ll see if the current Islanders will follow the same path following the heartache they suffered the previous two seasons.