I grew up less than 5 miles from Nassau Coliseum. When the Islanders first arrived, tickets were not a problem. A lot of games, you could get in with your high-school ID and $3 - all for the privilege of watching an expansion team play against somebody like the California Golden Seals, who used to wear clownish white skates.
What happened that spring, in the Islanders' third season, is something that you never really forget. Everybody who follows the Flyers should know their current predicament is an outrageous longshot - in the NHL, the team leading the series by 3-0 has won 157 out of 159 times. (The other team was the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, who came back against Detroit.) The odds are about 99 to 1. But when it happens, the memory is indelible.
That spring, it almost happened twice.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Islanders knocked out the Rangers in overtime of the final game in a best-of-three series. There are people who will claim that was the greatest moment that spring - such was the hatred for the Rangers, whose fans used to buy up about 70 percent of the tickets at Islanders-Rangers games at the Coliseum back then. The clinching goal was scored by J.P. Parise, who is now known as Zach's father.
Next were the Pittsburgh Penguins, who won the first three games over the Islanders. The fans honestly weren't that disappointed - such was the enormity of the win over the Rangers. Coach Al Arbour changed goalies after the third loss, from Billy Smith to Chico Resch, but there were no expectations. Even when they won Game 4, nobody really believed. Then they won Game 5 in Pittsburgh, and, well . . .
(Note to the Flyers: You know how athletes always say that nobody believed but the people in the dressing room? Well, until Game 6, if you can somehow get to Game 6 against the Bruins, that will be the absolute truth. Until then, you are completely on your own.)
Anyway, the Islanders won Game 6 at home, pretty comfortably, and it was back to Pittsburgh for Game 7. In that one, the game was scoreless past the midway point of the third period. The Penguins hit a couple of posts - they hit about a dozen in the series, it seemed - but Resch kept everything out of the net. The young Islanders ultimately got the game-winner from their original captain, veteran Ed Westfall. After the game, and not for the first time in the series, Resch actually kissed the goal posts behind him.
For me, the Parise game and then that Game 7 at Pittsburgh were my greatest Islander memories. I was in Philadelphia and working as a sports writer when they started winning their Stanley Cups, my rooting interests pretty much gone. It was that '75 spring, the first playoff run, the impossible dream spring, that I remember.
And then it almost happened again.
After the Penguins, it was Islanders-Flyers in the conference final. By now, you can guess what happened - the Flyers won the first three games. It had been such a good ride that my friends didn't even care. We all came up with the same line of gallows humor: "We've got 'em right where we want 'em."
Then the Islanders won Game 4, and Game 5, and Game 6. Stunningly, it was happening again. The Flyers were the defending Cup champions and it was happening again. Game 7 was at the Spectrum. Just to be sure, for a rare live performance of "God Bless America," the Flyers parachuted in Kate Smith - and just imagine how much fabric that took.
Anyway, watching the anthem on TV, Smith finished the song and the building was going crazy and then Westfall suddenly skated into the picture and handed her a bouquet of flowers and said a few words. We all felt as if Westfall had stolen the moment, maybe trumped the good-luck charm.
We were wrong. The Flyers crushed the Islanders in that Game 7. It really is that hard.
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