Wayne Gretzky watches the Lightning and feels like he’s seen this movie before. His Edmonton Oilers suffered some heartbreaks at the hands of the 1980s New York Islanders dynasty, the group that won four consecutive Stanley Cup championships from 1980-83. And this Tampa Bay team — which is four wins away from the NHL first three-peat in 40 years — has some similarities to the last dynasty.
“Their resilience is a lot like that team, the Islanders of the 80s,” Gretzky said, “in a sense that, they can play you skating, they can play you defensive, they can play you physical. And like Billy Smith, like Grant Fuhr, this goalie (Andrei Vasilevskiy) is really special. The bigger the game, the better it seems to play. They have it in their minds that they can’t lose.
“And their work ethic is extraordinary. You watch them play, they play hard every shift. They play unselfish.”
But is the Lightning-80s Islanders comparison accurate? Denis Potvin, the Hockey Hall of Fame captain of those Cup teams, sees it.
“Absolutely,” Potvin told The Athletic. “I don’t think it’s a major secret. How well you defend is how you win Stanley Cups. We felt we could beat the Bruins at their game, we could beat Montreal at their game, all these series we played. But for me, it was how well we all defended as a team, as a unit, that gave us the edge. And I see that in Tampa.”
The Lightning — who faced the Colorado Avalanche in the Stanley Cup Final starting Wednesday — overcame a 2-0 deficit in the Eastern Conference final against the Rangers by winning four consecutive games and allowing just five combined goals. In their last eight wins in the playoffs, including a sweep of the Panthers, they gave up eight total goals. The Islanders played in a higher-scoring era but also won their fourth championship by sweeping the high-flying Oilers and holding them to six goals.
To win their third straight championship, Tampa Bay must contain the offensive juggernaut of the Avalanche, and perhaps history could repeat itself.
“It has a lot more to do with your own belief in your team,” Potvin said. “As you go deeper in the playoffs, you tend to understand, ‘Don’t take the foot off the pedal.’ We had a situation like that with the Oilers in 1983. There wasn’t anyone in the world that picked us to win the ’83 Cup, least of all to win it in four games. But the machine was so well-oiled that even though we didn’t have (Mike) Bossy in the first game, we won 2-0. The rest is history.”
The Islanders won four straight championships from 1980-83, just after the Canadians won four from 1976-79. It was a different era, with no salary cap, less parity and less turnover; the first-round series were best-of-five, too. There were 16 Islanders who were part of all four Cup runs, while the Lightning have had to constantly tinker with their roster, including replacing their entire identity line of Yanni Gourde, Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman last summer. Tampa Bay has won 11 consecutive playoff series, which is incredible, yet it’s still eight off the Islanders’ record of 19.
But Potvin believes what the Lightning went through to win their back-to-back championships was “unprecedented,” from the 65 days spent in a COVID-19-sparked bubble in 2020 to the shortened seasons, playing through the summer and playing without injury stars Nikita Kucherov for 2021 regular season and Steven Stamkos for most of the 2020 playoffs. “Nobody has ever seen back-to-back Cup wins like what the Lightning did,” Potvin said.
Several members of the 1980s Isles team brought up the fact that their championship arc was similar to Tampa Bay. Before New York won the Cup in four straight seasons, they lost in the semifinals in four of five seasons. That included in 1979, when they led the league in points (116) and had the top-ranked offense and second-ranked defense. They were juggernauts, kind of like the 2019 Presidents’ Trophy-winning Lightning.
But the Islanders lost in the semis to the rival Rangers in six games. It was not quite like the Lightning getting swept in the first round by the Blue Jackets in 2019, which Columbus coach John Tortorella believes “created a monster.” But, in both cases, there were some — even in the team’s dressing room — who wondered how much change would happen after. Bob Nystrom recalled this year that he thought there would be trades, but credited management for showing patience, much like Tampa Bay GM Julien BriseBois did in the summer of 2019.
“To win the Cup or to be in the playoffs, it’s so much different than the regular season,” Nystrom said. “You’ve got to have a different attitude. You can’t fear losing. You’ve got to want to win more.”
“We never thought about losing; we thought about moving on,” said former Islanders forward Bob Bourne. “You just keep going and going. The taste and experience everyone talks about, to me that’s huge. I hate this cliche but you can’t learn how to win until you learn how to lose. That’s why Tampa is going to be so tough.”
What also connects the 1980s Isles and this Tampa Bay team is depth — and some needed good fortune.
As in the Lightning’s first-round series against the Leafs, New York found itself on the brink of elimination in the first round of their three-peat year against the Penguins. The Islanders won the first two but lost the next two in the best-of-five series, then trailed 3-1 with six minutes to go in the third period of Game 5. As Bourne said, ‘That was the game that made us famous.” Nystrom recalled being in the box to serve a penalty in the third and the attendant telling him he couldn’t believe it was over.
“It nearly ended the run,” Potvin said.
Bourne recalled how the Penguins’ Mike Bullard — who scored 51 goals that year — hit the crossbar in the third period. Defenseman Mike McEwen, acquired at the deadline, scored with five minutes left to tie the game, and John Tonelli’s game-tying goal came on a fortuitous carom off the boards.
“That’s the unpredictability factor,” Potvin said. “We dumped the puck into (Randy) Carlyle’s corner, and the puck bounces over his stick. How do you explain that? The Norris Trophy winner. I don’t know if he took his eye off it. John Tonelli got it and scored the tying goal. Not me, not (Mike) Bossy, not (Bryan Trottier). None of us were on the ice.
“That’s how you’re going to win championships — with depth. And a little luck.”
The Lightning showed both in beating the Leafs, their toughest challenge to date. Think back to the posts that Toronto hit in the third period and overtime of Game 6 before Brayden Point scored the winner. And when Point got hurt in Game 7, who was the hero? Nick Paul, the trade deadline addition, who got bumped up to the second line.
“To me, your best players have to be your best players, and they will always have to be,” Bourne said. “But the biggest thing with the teams that win championships is the third- and fourth-line guys — and I hate that term. But on our team, you could take guys off our bottom six and put them into the top six and they’d be a good player. Tampa reminds me of that. They put guys up there and they excel. An average player can become a more-than-average player depending on who he’s playing with. And (Jon) Cooper is brilliant. He’s one of those Scotty Bowman or Al Arbour-type guys. As a coach, you can only put a player in a situation he can excel at.”
Cooper has his fingerprints all over the Lightning’s Cup runs. In these playoffs, he’s not only made the correct lineup tweaks (like putting Brandon Hagel and Alex Killorn with Anthony Cirelli for a shutdown line), but he also “blew a gasket” in a speech during the first intermission in Game 2 against the Rangers . The series turned around. Potvin said Arbor had his own unique way of motivating, as the then young defenseman saw in the 1975 playoffs.
“We lost the first three games to Pittsburgh, and instead of being mad, he brought us all to center ice and he apologized,” Potvin said. “I couldn’t believe it. He felt he felt he wasn’t there for us, he didn’t prepare us properly. I remember JP Parise skated by and said, ‘I’ve never had that from my coach in my whole career.’ It had such an impact on us. He wasn’t blaming us for losing three in a row. He had a medical issue and missed some practices, so he apologized. It was the biggest motivator I’ve ever seen. We won the next four games.”
The Islanders’ stars delivered in their Cup runs, much like the Lightning, from captain Steven Stamkos with two goals in Saturday’s Game 6 victory to Nikita Kucherov recording a third consecutive 20-point postseason.
“Kucherov is unbelievable,” Potvin said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen somebody so complete. I remember the Canada Cup when Mario Lemieux was in the slot covered by one, two, three guys — the puck is going at him, but he knew Paul Kariya was behind him and he let the puck slide by him and Kariya scored. That was a phenomenal play. And Kucherov did the same thing at the end of Game 3, when he let the puck slide by, a light pass to (Ondrej) Palat.
“To me, that was incredible. That was a Mario-esque kind of play.”
Bourne said Kucherov could be Tampa Bay’s difference-maker in the three-peat quest. “The kid is brilliant, always a step above,” Bourne said. “They’ve got so many good players, but Kucherov takes them to another level. He’s so smart, so strong. He’s their Brian Trottier. He leads them but doesn’t want to be acknowledged, not in the limelight. That kid could carry them to another Cup.”
The Lightning recently had a streak of 18 consecutive wins following a playoff loss, dating back three postseasons. “Once you win a Stanley Cup, the taste of it is incredible,” Bourne said. “It’s almost an addiction.”
The way Tampa Bay players say they take losses “personal” rings true with the Islanders.
“It’s not so much the desire. It’s the hatred of losing,” Bourne said. “I know, as a team, we hated to lose.”
Gretzky often tells a story about the 1983 Stanley Cup Final, in which his Oilers were swept by the Islanders. On his way out of the building, Gretzky and teammate Kevin Lowe walked by the New York room. They weren’t really celebrating, he thought. There were guys with ice bags all over their bodies. Guys tapped up, worn down. Gretzky said it made them realize that they needed to dig deeper.
Cooper showed a video of that Gretzky story to the Lightning team during the conference finals against the Islanders in 2020. Who would have thought that Tampa Bay would turn into the modern-day version of those New York teams?
That’s why fans should appreciate what they’re watching. Every team has an expiration date, including those Islanders who were defeated in five games by the Oilers in the finals the following year in 1984.
“Being the champion coming into a series, you always feel like you have much more to lose. That’s the pressure you put on yourself,” Potvin said. “Teams age very fast. Your top guys have to perform at an extremely high level. Take Chicago. They had three, four, five years. You’ve got to get it done in that window because you’re not going to be able to sustain it. Because your good players are getting older and more tired. You’ll lose players in free agency. I believe it’s more difficult now than ever to be able to consistently win.”
Bourne likes the Lightning’s chances against Colorado, mostly because of the goaltending advantage with Andrei Vasilevskiy as opposed to the Avalanche’s uncertainty. While Bourne doesn’t believe any pro sports team will win 19 consecutive series again, he’s enjoying watching Tampa Bay chase history. As Potvin put it, “You never bet against the champion.”
Can the Lightning pull it off?
“I picked them from the get-go,” Potvin said. “I’ll be disappointed if they didn’t.”
(Top photo of Denis Potvin in 1983: Bill Kostroun / AP Photo)