TORONTO — No one should be surprised that the Islanders advanced to the conference finals for the first time in 27 seasons.
After all, their success derives from a familiar playbook: their own.
Like the 1992-93 club, and to a certain extent the 1980s dynasty that won four consecutive Stanley Cups, the main connective tissue has been leadership: General Manager Bill Torrey and Coach Al Arbour then, and Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz now.
All were of the same mold. They emphasized important principles of accountability and earned the trust of the players. Torrey was hired by the expansion Florida Panthers as their president in April 1993, but his fingerprints were all over that Islanders team.
“There’s no variance with Lou,” said Ray Ferraro, a TV analyst for TSN who was a key member of the 1993 team. “And Barry has a great connective way with his players. They trust what he says and he can get his message to his players.”
These Islanders, of course, are trying to advance further than Ferraro’s, who lost the conference finals in five games to the eventual champions, the Montreal Canadiens. But they are down, 2-0, to the Tampa Bay Lightning in their series in Edmonton, Alberta, falling in Game 2 after Nikita Kucherov broke a 1-1 with less than 10 seconds left.
Like the 2020 version, the 1993 Islanders were a collection of hard-working players who excelled by playing solid defense and outworking their more skilled opponents. They also played with a lot of emotion, epitomized by the hard-hitting rookie defenseman Darius Kasparaitis, who helped neutralize the Penguins star Mario Lemieux as the Islanders beat Pittsburgh in seven games in the division finals.
Scotty Bowman, who coached Pittsburgh to a repeat championship in 1992, sees similarities between Arbour and Trotz in how they learned how to develop a competitive roster in the early, lean years in their careers, with Trotz coaching expansion Nashville for its first 15 seasons.
“Al started with the Islanders when they were only in the second year,” Bowman said. “Trotz started with Nashville. They didn’t have the players, so they had to figure out a way to stay competitive. I coached against Trotz when Nashville came in, and they were a tough team to play against.”
The best scorer on the 1993 Islanders was Pierre Turgeon, who was coming off a career-best 58 goals in the regular season. But a blindside hit in Game 6 of the first round resulted in a separated shoulder, causing him to miss the ensuing series against the Penguins.
From the top-line players to the role players, the Islanders pulled together to compensate for the loss of Turgeon.
“What a great team,” said Glenn Healy, the Islanders’ starting goaltender in 1993. “Not in the sense we were all going to the Hall of Fame because I don’t think any of us are in the Hall. But we certainly were a Hall of Fame team in that we cared about each other.”
It helped that Healy and Ferraro got hot at the right time. “Heals had the six weeks of his career, I would say, and I had the six weeks of my career,” Ferraro said.
Ferraro, who missed three months of the 1992-93 season with a broken leg and dislocated ankle, caught lightning in a bottle. He scored eight goals in the first round against Washington, including four in one game, scored two overtime winners, and led the team with 13 goals in 18 postseason games.
“Every player who plays a long time has a time when everything is going their way,” Ferraro said. “It’s described as being in the zone.”
One player who was in the zone was forward David Volek, who had such a miserable season that the ownership wanted to get him off the roster. He scored the overtime winner, his second of the game, on a two-on-one with Ferraro in Game 7 against Pittsburgh.
Another unlikely hero was forward Tom Fitzgerald.
“We were down in Game 4, and he scored two short-handed goals on the same penalty,” Healy recalled, still incredulous. “Same penalty. Otherwise we don’t get to Game 7.”
The Islanders won that game, 6-5, and tied the series, 2-2, preventing the powerful Penguins from taking a 3-1 stranglehold.
This year’s Islanders also saw unsung players step up. Defensemen Scott Mayfield and Andy Greene, a 37-year-old acquired in a trade with the Devils, scored the opening two goals in Game 7 against the Philadelphia Flyers and put it out of reach. And Matt Martin scored his fifth goal of the postseason in Game 2 against Tampa Bay, matching his total for the regular season.
They have adopted a defense-focused system in which all five players collapse toward their own net to support the goaltender and block as many shots as they can. But they are quick enough to race up ice on the forecheck to put pressure on the other team’s defense.
John Tonelli, who played with the teams of the 1980s dynasty, said that “as a player who played for Al, you could see a lot of things we used to do, they are doing.” He continued, “A good, solid team game, good support in front of their goaltender. You know, the Islanders.”
Those 1980s teams were more skilled and complete than either the 1993 team or the current club. They had a strong two-way center in Bryan Trottier, a rugged power forward in Clark Gillies, an elite scorer in Mike Bossy, a tough offensive defenseman in Denis Potvin and a combative puck-stopper in Billy Smith. All five are in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
But they had to learn how to win before their first Stanley Cup title in 1980.
They had endured a crushing Game 7 overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1978 quarterfinals and were shocked by the underdog Rangers in the 1979 semifinals after the Islanders had a league-best 116 points during the regular season.
Trotz’s Capitals were criticized as chronic underachievers because, although they won the Presidents’ Trophy for finishing the regular season with the most points both in 2015-16 and 2016-17, they lost each time in the second round to the Penguins, who won the Stanley Cup both years. Finally, the Capitals broke through and knocked off the Penguins in 2018, and that momentum carried the Capitals to their first championship.
Trotz joined the Islanders for the next season and has taken the Islanders to the postseason twice.
“I think Barry has a really good grip on what they are going through,” said Gillies, one of 16 Islanders who played on all four Cup-winning Islanders teams. “He went through two very tumultuous years in Washington before he won the Cup. He learned a lot of lessons. There are things we learned back in 1978 and 1979.”
Potvin also sees a parallel between Torrey’s trade acquisition of Butch Goring in 1980 and the trade this year by Lamoriello to bring in Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Goring was seen as the final piece of the puzzle for the Islanders, scoring 19 points in 21 postseason games to help the Islanders win the first of their four consecutive Stanley Cups, and being named the most valuable player of the playoffs the next season.
Pageau, in turn, has been a sparkplug for the Islanders. He is among the Islanders’ leading goal scorers while providing forward depth as the third-line center.
Off the ice, the Islanders then and now made tight bonds. They live near each other on Long Island during the season, making for close friendships between them, their wives and families.
“The 1980 Islanders had terrific esprit de corps,” said Stan Fischler, a hockey historian. “Ditto for this club.”
The year-end team party in 1993 was a testament to how tight the club was, Healy said. Normally, some players are bitter that they didn’t get enough ice time, or didn’t get on the power play.
Not this team.
“Our entire group was out, and it was like it never ended for us,” Healy said. “A bunch of us even went to Ireland on vacation together.”
Healy, who won a Stanley Cup with the Rangers in 1994, when they broke a 54-year Cup drought, sees this Islanders team as having some of the ingredients needed for a championship run, although the Lightning — with 92 points in the regular season and having outscored the Isles, 10-3 in the first two games — are more talented.
“The Islanders have got a good coach, they’ve got good structure, they understand what their roles are, and they care about one another,” Healy said. “That goes a long way.”