Sunday, November 4, 2007

Game recap: Al Arbour Night - Islanders 3, Penguins 2

Inviting Al Arbour back behind the Islanders' bench one more time so he could reach 1,500 games as the team's head coach was certainly an honor for the Hall of Famer and must have been a wonderful experience for his family, which was on hand in impressive numbers in the post-game ceremony.

(For incredible coverage of the game and festivities, check out the reports filed by my fellow bloggers in the NYI Blog Box.)

But for the fans, this brainchild of Ted Nolan provided us the opportunity not only to see Radar - with his ever-present glasses and notebook in his hand - at the helm of the Islanders once more, but to reflect on his career and truly appreciate what a great coach, and person, he is.

When the Islanders first raised the '739' banner in 1997, emcee Clark Gillies introduced Arbour as "the greatest coach in the history of hockey," and while that could be debated, there's no question he is in the NHL pantheon. That was underscored by the presence of Scotty Bowman, who gave Arbour his first coaching job with the Blues. Bowman was a surprise guest tonight and dropped the ceremonial puck with former GM Bill Torrey, and Bowman later said that as a player, Arbour was like a coach on the ice.

Arbour won three Stanley Cups as a player, a shot-blocking defenseman despite wearing glasses, which tells you all you need to know about how tough he was. As a coach, Arbour was one of the first to use film and video to break down games and scout the opposition, and he took pride in staying calm, cool and collected on the bench. But his players will tell you that Arbour knew how to lay down the hammer, with what has been described as a "paint-peeling baritone" of a voice.

The numbers alone say it all. His 1,500 games and 740 wins as Islanders coach are NHL records for a coach with one team, and no one else comes close. Four Cups, five straight appearances in the finals and 19 consecutive playoff series victories truly define a dynasty. But another of the joys of this one-game celebration was hearing the stories about the things that set Arbour apart, and perhaps the most famous one concerned the fifth and final game of the 1982 first-round playoff series against Pittsburgh.

Down 3-1 with less than six minutes left and the chance at a third straight championship on the line, the Islanders were about to go on the power play when Arbour changed goalies, taking off Billy Smith and sending out Rollie Melanson. It was classic Arbour, using the Melanson warmup to give his top-ranked power play a bit more rest. Sure enough, Mike McEwen scored to cut the gap to one, and then John Tonelli scored the tying goal in the third period and then game-winner in overtime, keeping the dynasty alive.

And looking up at the '739' banner, and the Torrey banner, and the names SMITH, POTVIN, BOSSY, GILLIES, NYSTROM and TROTTIER hanging in the rafters, you realize, "God, what a great team." From the front office to the bench to the players, that Islanders team was one of the best the league has ever seen, and as a young fan I could not truly appreciate what I was witnessing, despite the incredible amount of joy that team gave me. It's only now, 24 years since that last Stanley Cup championship, that I look back and think how spoiled we all were.

Arbour always gave the credit to Torrey and to his great players, but anyone can tell you without Arbour, it never would have happened the way it did. Fittingly, the Islanders of 2007 came through on Arbour's night and won game No. 1,500, giving him win No. 740, and was interesting to hear Arbour say that he would really enjoy coaching this squad because it plays the game hard. Like his teams did.

It was a comeback victory. Down 2-0 after a lackluster start to the second period, the Islanders got it going when Trent Hunter - who was all over the ice - capitalized on a bad bounce suffered by Sidney Crosby, who was trying to bank the puck behind his own net. It came out to Hunter and he buried it.

Five minutes into the third, Miro Satan finished off a play that began with a long pass by Andy Sutton off the far boards to Josef Vasicek, who drew two defenders before sliding a perfect pass to Satan, whose quick one-timer beat Marc-Andre Fleury. Crosby fired one off the post moments later, but the Isles had the momentum. Even Wade Dubielewicz came up big, getting the win and making seven saves after replacing Rick DiPietro, who was cut by Crosby's stick late in the second.

The game-winner came with 2:41 remaining. Marc-Andre Bergeron - who had been told to get his shots off quicker to the net - one-timed a snap shot from the point, which Fleury got a pad on, but Satan was there to put the rebound home.

All that was left was the banner-raising ceremony, and once again, the Islanders did it up right (if good karma means anything, the Isles have it in bunches after tonight). Besides Arbour's extended family, Islanders alumni were on hand, a roster that included Mike Bossy, Gillies, Gerry Hart, Benoit Hogue (awesome player in Sega '94) Pat LaFontaine, Jean Potvin and Bryan Trottier. Yet with all those stars, the guy who heard his name chanted like the old days - STEVE WEBB!

Just a great night all around. You couldn't have asked for more or for a better outcome, and it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. Al Arbour, we salute you.

An update on DiPietro: According to the Islanders web site, D.P. is day-to-day after suffering "cuts near the right eye" but no damage to the eye itself. You'd think that if it was just a cut near the eye, they'd stitch it up and send him right out there. We'll see if DiPietro is in the net Tuesday night against the Rangers, a game he'd sure hate to miss.


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