The Islanders parlayed their last place finish into Denis Potvin, the first overall selection in the 1973 NHL Amateur Draft, who would go on to patrol the ice for New York for the next 15 seasons and led the team in scoring with 17 goals and 54 points in 77 games on his way to being named the Calder Trophy winner as NHL Rookie of the Year.
Despite the arrival of Potvin, the Islanders improved marginally in 1973-74 to a 19-41-18 record for 56 points, second worst in the NHL and ahead of only the California Golden Seals 36 points, as the Golden Seals roster was raided unmercifully by the upstart WHA.
Normally the Islanders would have selected second overall, but during the 1974 NHL Amateur Draft, the expansion clubs, the Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts, were granted the first two picks, pushing the Islanders down to fourth behind California. New York used its pick to select Clark Gillies, who would prove to be the only future Hall of Famer chosen in the first round of the draft. The Islanders second round pick was another home run, and another future Hall of Famer, Bryan Trottier.
While Trottier would spend another year in junior hockey, Gillies would make the Islanders 1974-75 roster out of training camp. Other new additions to the lineup for that seasons were undrafted free agent goalie Glen "Chico" Resch, who replaced Desjardins as Smith's partner after appearing in 2 games in 1973-74. Bob Bourne arrived via trade and would be a regular in the Islanders lineup for the next dozen years.
Also arriving during the season were veterans J. P. Parise and Jude Drouin in separate trades with the Minnesota North Stars.
Potvin again led the club in scoring, only now with 21 goals and 76 points. The improved roster saw Harris' point total climb to 25 goals and 62 points. Bob Nystrom also saw his point total climb to 27 goals and 55 points, up from 41 the year before, and veteran Ed Westfall also saw an increase from 42 to 55 points as well. After Garry Howatt's 48 points (an increase of 31!) was rookie Gillies with 25 goals and 47 points. Drouin and Parise, playing in just a half a season with the Islanders, had 32 and 30 points, a pace which would have had them among the top four had they played a full season.
Smith led the team with 58 games played and had his first winning season, with a 21-18-17 record and a 2.78 goals against, down from 4.16 two seasons earlier. Resch, meanwhile, also had a winning record at 12-7-5 and an even better 2.47 goals against.
All of this added up to a 33-25-22 record (22 ties!) to finish tied for second with the New York Rangers in the Patrick Division and their first ever playoff berth.
The Islanders were paired with the Rangers in the best-of-three Preliminary Round and won Game 1 in stunning fashion, scoring 3 third period goals to win 3-2. The Rangers hammered the Islanders 8-3 in Game 2, forcing a deciding Game 3. The Islanders scored once in the first (Gillies) and twice in the second (both coming from Potvin) only to have the Rangers score 3 in the third to force a winner-take-all overtime. The former North Stars wasted little time, as Drouin fed Parise in front of the Rangers goal for an easy tap in after just 11 seconds of overtime. Of note, the road team won all three games of the series.
The Islanders advanced to face the Pittsburgh Penguins, who finished the season with a record similar to New York at 37-28-15 for 89 points, one more than the Islanders. Pittsburgh advanced by sweeping the St. Louis Blues by scores of 4-3 and 5-3.
Game 1 was held in Pittsburgh and saw the Penguins streak out to a 3-0 lead after 12 minutes. New York scored one in the first and one in the second to close to within 3-2 only to have the Penguins score a shorthanded goal 36 seconds into the third and add an important insurance goal at 4:44, as Parise scored twice afterwards to make the final margin 5-4 for Pittsburgh with Smith taking the loss.
Game 2 was scoreless after one. The Penguins scored two in the second and a third at 14:51 of the third before a goal by Gillies 43 seconds later made the final score 3-1 for Pittsburgh, giving them a 2-0 series advantage.
Game 3, held on Long Island, saw the Penguins leading 3-0 just 3:25 into the second period. Westfall scored in the second followed by Drouin at 1:17 of the third. The Penguins restored a 2 goal lead with a goal at 10:31 for a 4-2 lead. The game was scoreless for the next seven minutes before all hell broke loose. Bert Marshall scored for the Islanders at 17:41, Syl Apps for Pittsburgh at 18:15, Drouin for New York at 19:08 and Lowell MacDonald sealed the game and a 3-0 series lead for Pittsburgh with an empty net goal at 19:48 - four goals in 2:07 to make the final score 6-4 for the Penguins.
The Islanders now had no margin for error or their first playoffs would come to an immediate end. Looking for a change in fortune, the Islanders changed from Smith to Resch in goal for Game 4 in New York. With the game tied at 1-1 after two periods, the Islanders got third period goals from Gillies and Parise 39 seconds apart and Resch made 27 saves for the win to keep the Islanders season alive for one more game.
Game 5 back in Pittsburgh was 2-0 for New York after one period and the teams traded goals in the second for a 3-1 New York lead after two. With a shade under three minutes to play, MacDonald pulled the Penguins back to within 1 at 3-2, but Drouin scored an empty net goal with 30 seconds to play for a 4-2 win for the Islanders despite being outshot 36-19 as Resch won his second in a row.
Game 6 had the Islanders back at home in front of their own fans, who were restless after a scoreless first period. Ralph Stewart opened the scoring for New York at 4:07 of the second and Pierre Larouche countered just 49 seconds later for the Penguins. Howatt put the Islanders back on top at 15:16 and the game did not see another goal until Pittsburgh pulled Gary Inness and Westfall made it 3-1 with 26 seconds to play before Howatt made the final 4-1 with a second empty net goal with a second remaining, giving the Islanders fans one more reason to celebrate their upstarts winning a third straight game to force a Game 7 after being down 3 games to none.
Game 7 took place on this date in 1975 at The Igloo in Pittsburgh. Resch, with the three wins for New York, got the obvious call in goal for the Islanders, while Inness started all seven for the Penguins.
There was no scoring after the first period, but plenty of animosity, as Gillies and Bob Paradise fought at 2:44. Dave Lewis for New York and Dennis Owchar then dropped the gloves at 11:37. There were three other instances where matching minors were handed out.
The second period was even more tense as the game continued scoreless. The Penguins led in shots 14-5 after one and then had an 11-6 advantage in the second, but despite outshooting the Islanders 25-11 after two, could not solve Resch.
The third period saw Howatt take a penalty at 5:48, but New York was able to withstand the Penguins powerplay. Finally, at 14:42, Westfall, an original Islander, got the puck alone in the slot and fired a backhander past Inness for the go ahead goal.
The New York defense, led by Potvin, limited Pittsburgh to just five shots on goal for the third period as New York became the second team to come back from a 3-0 series deficit to win a seven game series and first since the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs thanks to their 1-0 win in Game 7 on the road.
Resch finished with 30 saves for the necessary shutout and his fourth consecutive win in goal. The shutout was the first Game 7 shutout on the road in NHL history.
That was not all for the dramatics though, as the Islanders lost to their next opponent the Philadelphia Flyers 4-0 in Game 1 of their Semifinal series, then were defeated 5-4 in overtime and shutout again 1-0 in Game 3. The Islanders stayed alive after a tense 4-3 overtime win in Game 4 at home, cruised to a 5-1 win in Game 5 and had all of the hockey world talking with a 2-1 win to once again come back from a 3-0 deficit to tie the series at 3-3!
Could New York pull off the virtually impossible twice in a row after it had only been done once in 57 years? It was not to be, as the Flyers led 3-1 after one period and Bernie Parent held the Islanders scoreless for the game's final 55 minutes to win 4-1 and end their first, but memorable playoff run.
With a taste of the playoffs, the Islanders made it to Round 3 in both 1976 and 1977, the second round in 1978 and the third round once more in 1979. By now the battle tested team had added additional talent, such as Trottier, scoring star Mike Bossy, John Tonelli, Butch Goring, and US Olympian Ken Morrow going into the 1980 playoffs. The Islanders would defeat those same Flyers to win what would be the first of their four consecutive Stanley Cup championships of their 1980s dynasty.
Today's featured jersey is a 1974-75 New York Islanders Ed Westfall jersey as worn during the Islanders Game 7 shutout of the Penguins to become the first team in 33 years to come from three games down to win a playoff series.
Note that the Islanders spelled the rookie Gillies name wrong on the back of the future Hall of Famer's jersey, leaving out the second "i"!
Extra bonus jersey: Today's extra bonus jersey is a 1974-75 New York Islanders Denis Potvin jersey as worn by the Islanders leading scorer during their wins in Game 4 and Game 6 as part of their historic comeback.
The Islanders debuted with this lace-up jersey and wore it through the 1976-77 season, with the only changes being a smaller font for the numbers after their first season of 1972-73 and the loss of the blue outline around the crest for the jersey's final season of 1976-77.
This particular #14 example was likely worn by Bourne when he was a part of the Islanders dramatic comeback during the 1975 playoffs.
And what of Vautour? He eventually played 17 games for the Islanders in 1979-80 and was claimed off waivers by the Colorado Rockies. He would play 204 NHL games with New York, Colorado, the New Jersey Devils and Quebec Nordiques.