Wednesday, January 25, 2012

New York Islanders: Then & Now

Back in the early 1980s, when tickets to a New York Islanders game were offered, there would be no hesitation in grabbing them as quickly as possible. Then, making a rapid exit out the door before someone rescinded the offer.

During the Islanders heyday, they captured four Stanley Cups. Their All-Star line-up was a joy to watch with players like Denis Potvin, Billy Smith and Mike Bossy leading the way. Getting a crack to watch those future Hall of Fame members in-person was at the top of the wish list for most hockey fans.

All these thoughts rumbled through my noggin when I attended the Leafs and Islanders game on Monday evening. Prior to heading down to the ACC, I decided to investigate the history on the visitors from Long Island relating to their first regular season trip to Toronto.

It was well into the 1972-73 season before the NHL's newest franchise from New York State journeyed north for an encounter against the Maple Leafs.

Under coach Phil Goyette, the first year expansion club had a mix of young and veteran talent. As they prepared to tangle with the Leafs, Ron Stewart was out of the line-up due to injuries. However, forward Ed Westfall and defencemen Arnie Brown were older players familiar to Toronto hockey fans when they skated out onto the ice for a mid-week contest on January 10, 1973.

The young talent and hope for a brighter future came from right-winger Billy Harris. The prized rookie was the crown jewel in the Islanders roster. "He's had very few bad games for us, the only problem is to keep him from becoming frustrated," Goyette told the Toronto media.

In addition to Harris being an ex-member of the Toronto Marlboros, Leaf faithful looked forward to a former fan favourite making another appearance at Maple Leaf Gardens. There was no mistaking the chap wearing sweater number nine for New York - Brian "Spinner" Spencer. When he patrolled the wing for Toronto, Spencer's no-nonsense approach to the game, and his ability to stick his nose into sticky situations, made him one of the most popular on the squad.

Entering the game, the Islanders only accumulated 12 points in the standings with four wins and the same amount of tie games. Those gathered at the Gardens expected the Leafs to sail to victory over their weaker opponent. Toronto iced a team which featured Dave Keon, Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson and Darryl Sittler in the forward positions. The defence core included Brian Glennie and Mike Pelyk in the rotation.

In goal for New York was Gerry Desjardins, with Ron Low getting the nod over Jacques Plante in the Toronto crease.

As expected, the Leafs didn't disappoint their supporters. Goals by Paul Henderson and Errol Thompson gave the home team a 2-0 advantage after one period of play.

The two clubs exchanged goals in period two with Dave Keon beating Desjardins for his 19th goal of the campaign. As time was ticking down, Billy Harris notched his 11th while the Islanders enjoyed a power play. The goal came at 19:15.

Heading into the final frame, Toronto held a 3-1 lead. Over the remaining twenty-minutes, both clubs scored, Henderson his second of the night for Toronto and Brian Lavender for New York.The Leafs headed for the showers with a 4-2 victory.

Following the final whistle, Foster Hewitt's three star selections were announced. The first star was Paul Henderson (scoring his 200th and 201st goals of his NHL career), followed by Dave Keon and Gerry Desjardins. Despite being on the losing end, the Islanders goalie kept his team close while facing almost 50 shots on net.

Some 39 years later, on January 23, 2012, the circumstances were very similar. The Islanders came to Toronto with a roster lacking skilled personnel, but with one name providing hope for a better tomorrow - John Tavares. Like Billy Harris and others in the 1970s, pieces need to be acquired to get the best out of Tavares game-in and game-out. It is vital management secures a "Bryan Trottier" to help Tavares develop and mature with each passing season.

On the night, Tavares and his teammates were held-at-bay as Toronto shutout the Islanders 3-0. Scoring for the Blue and White were Matt Lombardi with two and a single tally from sniper Phil Kessel. Blocking all 25 New York shots directed at his net was Jonas Gustavsson.

In his game report for The Globe and Mail, Jim Mirtle wrote this about Tavares, "While Tavares looked dangerous at times cycling the puck in the offensive zone, he had only three shots on goal and appeared frustrated after the game in the dressing room."

Sounds familiar, doesn't it Billy Harris?

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