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One for the Ages: Billy Smith’s 1981-82 NHL Season

Unless you played for the New York Islanders or were a fan of the team, you despised Billy Smith. He was mean and ornery to say the least, and wielded his goalie stick like some sort of wild hatchet man. No opposing player was safe around Smith’s goal crease. Whether it was a butt end close to the eye of Lindy Ruff or a chop to “The Great One” himself, “Battlin’ Billy” made it very clear that if you came near his goal crease, you were risking life and limb.

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But there is something else about Smith, where no matter how much you may have hated him, you could never deny it. Come playoff time there were few – if any – goaltenders who were ever better. Smith elevated his level of play during the playoffs in a way that may have never been replicated. He was simply money in the net, and he backstopped the Islanders to four straight Stanley Cup championships.

Nowadays when it is no big deal for starting goaltenders to play 65-75 games in a season, only one of Smith’s 18 NHL seasons saw him play in more than 50 games. For the Islanders’ goalie, the regular season just did not matter as much. Smith did not care for statistics or any sort of regular season achievements. To most, those sorts of accolades and accomplishments are nice but they fail in comparison to the Stanley Cup. When it came to Smith, however, multiply those sentiments times 100.

Billy Smith, New York Islanders
Billy Smith is easily the greatest goaltender in New York Islanders history, but his 1981-82 season with the team is likely the finest of his 18-year NHL career. (Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images)

During New York’s run of four consecutive Cups, Smith did have one season however that was arguably his finest – both in terms of the regular season and then continuing into the playoffs. During the 1981-82 season, Smith played in 46 regular season games. Even by his standards, this was one of his fuller seasons. Within that stretch Smith only recorded losses nine times all season – that’s it. More importantly, he compiled 32 wins and four ties to not only lead the Isles to the top of the Patrick Division but to be the top team in the league. Their 118-point season fueled by Smith’s play – and that of all of their other assets – was the best in the NHL that year.

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We look back on the 1981-82 season and examine Smith’s performance up close. While as a whole he has never been forgotten, this “one for the ages” season in his career has not been pinpointed for discussion as to how good it really was. How good Smith really was.

Billy Smith Had Long Been Number One on the Island

Let us set the stage a bit here. By the time the 1981-82 season had come around, Smith was already well-established as the Islanders’ top goaltender. While he would split the regular season duties fairly evenly throughout his time on Long Island with whoever his counterpart was, Smith still became the undisputed prized goalie on the team. So much so, that after the Islanders won their first Stanley Cup in the 1979-80 season, the team felt comfortable parting ways with goaltender Glenn “Chico” Resch. Prior to Resch being shipped to the woeful Colorado Rockies in March of the 1980-81 season, he had actually played the majority of games in the Isles’ net for five of the eight seasons that he and Smith were teammates.

Originally a fifth-round draft choice of the Los Angeles Kings in the 1970 NHL Amateur Draft, Smith played all of five games with the team and only in the 1971-72 season. For the following season, the league would add two new expansion teams, the Islanders and the Atlanta Flames. The Islanders made Smith their second selection of the 1972 NHL Expansion Draft, and it would prove to be one of the wisest decisions that the team has ever made. Out of Smith they would win their four Cups and witness their goaltender become a Hockey Hall of Famer.

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Smith backstopped the Islanders to the aforementioned 1979-80 and 1980-81 Stanley Cups. Prior to the 1981-82 season getting underway, he had already compiled 159 wins in 373 games. He also garnered 74 ties. Doing simple math, Smith went undefeated in over 62% of his games with New York in his first nine seasons. His fullest bit of action came in the 1974-75 season when he set career highs in games played (58), ties (17) and minutes played (3,368).

Smith Was by No Means a One Man Show

It would be highly remiss to not mention the numerous other components in the Islanders’ string of Stanley Cups. Billy Smith was by no means a one-man show. The Islanders possessed one of the most talented hockey clubs to ever be assembled and it was orchestrated daily by the man at the helm, head coach Al Arbour. Before he even began coaching the Islanders, Arbour had won four Stanley Cups as a player (Detroit in 1954, Chicago in 1961, and Toronto in 1962 and 1964). Presently, he sits second overall in NHL games coached (1,607) and fourth in wins (782).

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Not including Smith, the Islanders had four players from their Cup teams that were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame – Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier, and Clark Gillies. Many feel that Bossy is the greatest natural goal scorer to ever play the game. He scored 573 regular season goals in only 752 games. Potvin was the second defenseman to score 100 points in a season and finished his career with 1,052 in 1,060 games. Trottier would win a total of six Stanley Cups as a player and scored 1,425 points in 1,279 games. Gillies was the brawn of the squad and one of the most intimidating players to ever play, and he could score.

Aside from all of these superstars, the Islanders also possessed the finest collection of above-average role players in NHL history. Anders Kallur, Bob Nystrom, John Tonelli, Ken Morrow, Brent Sutter, Duane Sutter, Stefan Persson, Bob Bourne, Butch Goring, and you could go on from there. The point is that Smith had a tremendous supporting cast around him. Together as a team, in the truest sense of the word, they won on a grand scale.

In order to win, however, they needed Smith in net.

Islanders’ Smith – Many Successes in 1981-82

For the 1981-82 season, Smith shared the Islanders’ net with Rollie Melanson, a 21-year-old who was playing in only his second NHL season. To Smith’s 46 games that year, Melanson provided accompaniment with 36 games of his own and 22 wins. With the two netminders combined, the Islanders only lost 16 of their 80 games – nine losses went to Smith and seven were credited to Melanson.

Separate from any support he received from his backup, Smith assembled what we shall consider the finest season of his career. As stated, he only lost nine times in his 46 games. But Smith’s 32 wins were the most of any goaltender in the NHL in the 1981-82 season. His 2.97 goals-against average was about the middle of the road in terms of his career numbers, but that year it was the third-best GAA behind only Denis Herron and Rick Wamsley. In terms of save percentage, Smith posted a .900% flat across his 46 games. He allowed just 133 goals in 2,685 minutes of play. Oddly enough, Smith did not record a single shutout during the regular season.

Certainly, the league did not overlook his performance that year either. This was the first year that the NHL awarded the Vezina Trophy to the netminder deemed as the best goaltender instead of the one having the fewest goals against. Smith won the first and only Vezina of his long career. He would also be selected as the goaltender for the First All-Star Team – the only time in his career that he would be voted to either a First or Second team. Dislike him as much as you want, even Smith’s critics recognized the season that he put forth.

Let us take the time now to examine the finer moments from his 1981-82 NHL season:

Oct. 7, 1981: The first game of the regular season and the Islanders were on the road against Los Angeles. Smith turned aside 31 of 32 shots from the Kings in order to grab his team a 4-1 victory. The only shot to elude Smith was a Jim Fox tally in the first period, but he shut the door after that. In the second and third periods alone, Smith stopped all 20 shots that he faced.

Oct. 31, 1981: On Halloween no less, the Islanders were on the road once more and this time played in the Montreal Forum. Smith again just allowed one goal all night as New York defeated the Canadiens 2-1. The Islanders’ belligerent goalie stopped 34 of the 35 shots he faced and actually pitched a shutout until Doug Jarvis put one by him at 9:05 of the third period. The second period was the Canadiens’ biggest onslaught and Smith stopped all 15 shots that he faced.

Dec. 15, 1981: While this game should not be called a “finer moment”, it is worth mentioning because of the wildness of it. Smith came away as the winning goalie in a ridiculous 10-7 Islanders victory over the Quebec Nordiques on Long Island. These days it is incredibly hard to fathom an NHL game where 17 goals are scored, but that is what transpired on this night. Smith stopped just 22 of the 29 shots that he faced but still got the win. Poor Clint Malarchuk of the Nordiques allowed all 10 goals and stopped only 27 of the 37 shots that he faced.

Billy Smith Hockey Hall of Fame
Billy Smith taking part in a Hockey Hall of Fame game (Photo Credit: Horge/Wikimedia)

Jan. 9, 1982: Playing to a 3-1 win at Nassau Coliseum, Smith backstopped the Isles to the victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. After giving up an early goal to Ken Linseman in the first period less than three minutes into the game, he stonewalled the Flyers the rest of the way. Smith made 27 saves on 28 shots, including all 11 shots he faced in the second period.

Jan. 23, 1982: The Islanders crushed their hated rival the New York Rangers by a score of 6-1. Smith accounted for 21 saves on 22 shots, including all 11 that he faced in the opening period of the game. In front of him, the Isles got goals from six different shooters – Tomas Jonsson, Trottier, Brent Sutter, Bossy, Duane Sutter, and Gillies. Smith took care of the rest and kept “the Blueshirts” at bay.

Jan. 26, 1982: Just three days after beating the Rangers, Smith continued his solid play in net and ended up playing even better. The Isles would crush the Pittsburgh Penguins 9-2. Smith made 33 saves off of 35 shots. That included stopping 16 of 17 shots that came his way in the third period. This would be one of the highest shot totals that Smith would face all season.

Feb. 4, 1982: Smith faced double digits in shots for all three periods against the Washington Capitals. Still, his bell-weathered play in net ensured that the Islanders came away with a 5-2 win. Smith made 34 saves off of 36 shots and faced periods of 10, 13, and 13 shots respectively. The two goals he gave up came from the stick of Mike Gartner, and both came in the second period.

Mar. 2, 1982: The Islanders would double up on the Calgary Flames by a score of 6-3. Winning on home ice in Long Island, Smith stopped 32 of 35 shots that were put forth by Calgary. Once again he would face double digits in shots for each period. Though the 14 that he faced in the opening period would be the most he would see all game, Smith stopped each one of them.

Mar. 4, 1982: At home once more, the Islanders simply shellacked the Toronto Maple Leafs by a score of 10-1. That was not as easy as it sounds, as the Leafs still managed to put 32 shots on Smith. He allowed just one from Laurie Boschman in the second period but otherwise kept New York’s net clear. Bossy would score his 49th, 50th and 51st goals of the season, and also picked up an assist on the night too.

Mar. 10, 1982: The Islanders and the Minnesota North Stars would play to a 4-4 tie as two longtime goalies tried to outdo one another. Minnesota’s Gilles Meloche had a slightly easier night by facing 35 shots. Smith however had to face 40 shots total in order to preserve the tie for New York. The North Stars’ biggest attack was thrown at Smith during the second period when he faced 18 shots, and they managed to put two by him. Still, he turned all 10 Minnesota shots away in the third period as Gillies scored to get the game-tying goal for the Islanders.

Mar. 25, 1982: Smith would get the better of the Montreal Canadiens once more. Fellow Hall of Famer Steve Shutt scored one on Smith in the first period, but otherwise, the Isles goalie stopped them all after that. He would make 26 saves on 27 shots, as New York went on to win the game 3-1.

Apr. 4, 1982: In the last game of the regular season, the Pittsburgh Penguins took it to Smith and the Islanders and won the game 7-2. Still, Smith was heroic in defeat and could not be blamed for this one. The Penguins put 42 shots on the Islanders goalie and he still made 35 saves in the process. The Penguins increased their shot total each period from 10, then 15, and to 17 shots in the third period. Despite the goal differential, Smith was strong in net while facing the barrage.

How the 1981-82 Season Wrapped up for Smith

For the third season in a row, 1981-82 ended on the highest of notes for Smith and the New York Islanders. If his regular season was any sort of indicator as to how the playoffs would go, it should not have been any surprise that Smith was even better in the postseason. Playing in 18 of the Islanders’ 19 playoff games, Smith came away with 15 wins and a mere three losses.

His statistics stayed solid as well – a 2.52 GAA and a .906 SV%. The Islanders proceeded to knock off the Pittsburgh Penguins (3-2), New York Rangers (4-2) and the Quebec Nordiques (4-0) through the first three rounds of the playoffs. In the sweep of the Nordiques, the Islanders gave up just nine goals in four games.

Billy Smith
Billy Smith #31 of the New York Islanders defends the goal during a home game, Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, New York, March 1982. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

As came to be expected, Billy Smith was at his finest in the Stanley Cup Final. Coming off the sweep of Quebec, the Islanders made quick work of the Vancouver Canucks. Winning their third Cup in four straight games, Smith was in net for each game. While the two teams tried to outscore one another in Game 1 (6-5) and Game 2 (6-4), Smith shut the door for Games 3 and 4. In the last two games of the final round, he allowed just one goal on 47 shots. The only shutout that Smith recorded all year long came in the third game of the finals as he stopped all 23 shots to whitewash the Canucks.

The Canucks would not see a return run for the Cup until the 1993-94 season. Smith and the Islanders were now on the back half of their dynasty reign and appeared to be the team that just could not be beaten. Were it not for some young men by the names of Gretzky, Messier, Kurri, Coffey, Anderson and Fuhr, the Islanders would likely have replicated the Montreal Canadiens five straight Cups of the 1950s.

Closing the Final Pages of a Hall of Fame Career

Billy Smith and the Islanders would win one more Stanley Cup. During the 1982-83 season, they halted the high-flying Edmonton Oilers in the Finals by sweeping them in the same fashion that they did the Canucks. Smith played in all four of those games too and only gave up six goals to win the Cup in 1983. He was so good in Game One of the 1983 Finals that he stopped all 35 shots from Gretzky and company to get the shutout. The Oilers never rebounded.

Four Cups in four straight years could only have been made better by completing a drive for five. Learning from their mistakes and no longer intimidated by the veterans from Long Island, the Oilers derailed Smith’s and the Islanders’ dreams and thus began their own dynasty. Edmonton would win the 1983-84 Stanley Cup by defeating the Islanders four games to one.

Related: Billy Smith’s Untouchable New York Islanders Records

As far as Smith’s and the Islanders’ glory days would go, that would be it. Continuing to slow with age and wear, the players from New York’s dynasty began retiring or moving onto other teams. Smith would play five more seasons in the NHL after the 1983-84 campaign. While Smith certainly did not play poorly, a newcomer in net – Kelly Hrudey – emerged as the future for the Islanders’ goal crease. Smith would move into more of a backup role as Hrudey took the reigns for the main duties.

The Finest NHL Playoff Goaltender to Ever Play

Billy Smith’s final NHL season was the 1988-89 season. He would receive Hockey Hall of Fame induction in 1993, and despite relatively average regular season play is still considered one of the best goaltenders in hockey history. In 680 career regular season games, Smith compiled a record of 305-233-105 with a 3.17 GAA and a .894 SV% to go with 22 shutouts. To be expected, his postseason numbers outshine those of his regular season totals. In 132 playoff games, Smith went 88-36 with a 2.73 GAA and a .905 SV% with six shutouts.

If you were to assemble a team that could most closely guarantee you a Stanley Cup at the end of each season, your go-to man in net would be Billy Smith. No player’s career was more defined by his postseason heroics than Smith’s. The 1981-82 NHL season was perhaps the best example of where his playoff abilities bled into the regular season. It is what makes that year Smith’s one for the ages. You can bet the ranch however that he would turn over that Vezina Trophy and the All-Star selection to have a fifth Stanley Cup ring.

* originally published in March 2018

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