When they were alone Tuesday night, when they reached the solitude of their locker room, away from the jeers and taunts of most in the Capital Centre crowd of 18,130, the New York Islanders finally let go--if only for a moment.
"We all looked at each other," left wing Bob Bourne said, "and said, 'The Islanders are back.' It was a nice moment."
Actually, the Islanders were never that far gone. But after their four-year grip on the Stanley Cup was finally loosened last spring by the Edmonton Oilers, and after they went through their worst regular season since 1974, a lot of people thought the foundation was crumbling. When they then began the playoffs by dropping consecutive overtime games here to the Washington Capitals in a best-of-five series, the obituary writers had their pens poised.
The headline was even written: "Hockey Dynasty, 13, of age and attrition."
After all, no hockey team had come from a 2-0 deficit to win a five-game series. But no team has come back as many times in as many ways as the Islanders.
"Before the game tonight we talked about being the first team to come from 2-0 down to win," said captain Denis Potvin after the 2-1 victory over the Washington Capitals Tuesday night. "We hadn't been aware of it until after we got behind, 2-0. But when we did, we said to ourselves, 'Why not the Islanders?' "
Indeed, why not the Islanders, given their legacy of comebacks. It began in 1975 when the then-third-year expansion team, in its first playoff, became the second team to come back from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series. That was against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In the next round, the semifinals, the Islanders almost did it again, coming from 3-0 down against the Stanley Cup Champion Philadelphia Flyers to tie the series, 3-3, before finally losing the final game in the Spectrum.
In 1982, they trailed the Penguins, 3-1, with less than six minutes to play in the fifth game of the opening round and came back to win the game in overtime. In 1984, they trailed the New York Rangers, 2-1, in games and, 1-0, after two periods of the fourth game, facing elimination, at Madison Square Garden. They scored four goals to win that game and then won the fifth game in overtime. In the semifinals that season, they lost the first two games to Montreal and then swept the next four.
And now this. Not only did they overcome the 2-0 deficit in games, they overcame a 4-2 Washington lead after two periods in Game 4 against a team that hadn't blown a two-goal third-period lead all season.
"That's where the experience comes in," Potvin said. "Our memories of what we've done and their memories of what we've done. People know when they're playing the Islanders that we're never dead. I thought in the third period Sunday they lost their poise. We were behind but somehow they felt the pressure."
Mike Bossy, who scored the tying goal in the fourth game, agreed. "Losing the two overtime games here was a bitter experience," he said. "But the way we lost, coming so close, we never stopped believing that we could win. And, what's more, Washington never stopped believing we could win."
That was never more evident than in game three Saturday night in the Nassau Coliseum. Leading the series, 2-0, the Capitals played as if they trailed, 2-0. They were tentative, unwilling to forecheck aggressively. The Islanders, discouraged and maybe even a little disheartened, were given a chance to get off the mat.
"Both those games at home were character games for us," Coach Al Arbour said. "Washington was the younger team, everyone kept talking about that. But we were the team that made the big plays in the third period. That tells you a lot about our guys."
The Islanders open the Patrick Division Final in Philadelphia on Thursday. Because the Flyers have won 19 of 20 games, because they finished the regular season 26 points ahead of the Islanders, because their opening-round series against the Rangers was a three-game sweep and not a five-game ordeal, Philadelphia will be the heavy favorite.