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DEVILS OVER THE DECADES: Ch. 15 - Showdown with the Rangers

By the 1987-88 season, it was inevitable that a Devils-Rangers homestretch race for the playoffs would become worthy of a Hollywood scriptwriter

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

By the 1987-88 season, it was inevitable that a Devils-Rangers homestretch race for the playoffs would become worthy of a Hollywood scriptwriter.

And so it was, as winter turned to spring and the clubs collided at The Meadowlands Arena in a match that gripped the heartstrings of fans on both sides of the Hudson.

Like a hound pursuing a fox in an English countryside setting, the Devils were hellbent in desperate pursuit of their Trans-Hudson foes. The stakes were high; the tension almost unbearable.

Only a few points separated them; but the Rangers for weeks had steadfastly -- very stubbornly -- held their fourth-place beachhead and were determined not to relinquish it so late in the campaign.

Rangers coach Phil Esposito designated John Vanbiesbrouck to be his man to man the goal in the climactic contest. Few could argue with his choice since Beezer had become one of the NHL's best, young puckstoppers.

Jim Schoenfeld's goaltending choice was a no-brainer. Sean Burke was ready, willing and --hopefully for Devils fans -- able to meet this biggest challenge of his nascent career.

Not that any Metropolitan Area hockey fan needed to be told, but the Devils studious Doug Brown put the match in hometown perspective.

"This game," Brownie noted with appropriate aplomb, "is bigger than big for us."

Forget about bragging rights; a number of careers would be affected by the outcome, especially on the Jersey side. Was Lamoriello right, after all, in picking Schoenfeld? Was Lou, himself, the right guy to develop the franchise?

It also came down to a supreme challenge for Sean Burke. Could he really be the team's savior as some already had suggested?

As always the capacity crowd at East Rutherford had a homogenized flavor; about 60 percent for the Devils and the rest for the Blueshirts. This time the home fans got their money's worth.

Only two minutes were needed to prove that the Devils would not wilt in their drive. Kirk Muller scored his first of two goals and before anyone could say "Doc Mac" the Jersey floodgates had opened.

All kinds of drives would elude the beleaguered Beezer; including a penalty shot taken by Pat Verbeek. New York defenseman Mark Hardy made that possible by throwing his stick at Verbeek.

The Devils-friendly audience never had witnessed so melodramatic a moment in a Rangers-Devils game. The hush over Meadowlands Arena said it all for the tension and symbolism associated with this play.

"When the ref said it was a penalty shot my legs were shaking," Verbeek allowed. "I felt the way I felt as a kid in a classroom. And the teacher called on me to make a speech."

All things considered -- especially Patty's nervousness -- the husky, little Devil made his move seem utterly routine. He faked to his left and lifted a backhand behind the Gotham goalie.

The score was 2-2 at the time. Verbeek's penalty shot goal turned out to be the game-winner. But before the fracas had ended at 7-2, the Rangers defense had crumbled beyond repair.

With Burke now at the top of his goaltending game -- 27 saves vs. New York -- the Devils could feel the rush. Suddenly, they resembled a galloping racehorse moving up the pack toward the leader.

"It's going to be a fight to the end," said Verbeek, "and this team is loving it. Each game gets bigger."

Burke: "This was a relentless effort. The players are really committed."

Next up was a home and home series with the Penguins. The win over New York not only pulled New Jersey within three points of the Rangers but Pittsburgh as well. 

The Pennsylvania crowd would view a team that was cooking with gas. Burke blanked the Penguins 4-0 at home and then did a Ditto, 7-2, at the Igloo in Pittsburgh.

Muller, who had been the second Draft pick in 1984 -- after Mario Lemieux -- helped de-feather The Grand Mario. Meanwhile, Kirk made his captaincy look better than ever, lifting his goal total to 36.

Nobody in the Devils clubhouse wanted to put a damper on the jubilation but there were negative facts to consider. With all the wins, the Devils still were in fifth place, trailing the Rangers and Penguins by a point.

The Devils had two games remaining; one with the Islanders and the finale in Chicago against the Blackhawks. Hopefully, the Rangers would lose one of the two of their remaining games; otherwise, two Devils wins would be useless.

How New Jersey managed to pull into Playoff Terminal late on a Sunday night is an event that goes down in club history on a par with the franchise's three Stanley Cups.

Stay tuned for the final weekend rush to judgment!

LISTS: FOUR DEVILS WHO RESCUED THE CLUB FROM ITS ABYSS

1. SEAN BURKE; Beating John Vanbiesbrouck in the classic clash with the Rangers proved that Sean, the former Olympian, had made the difficult adjustment from the amateur to big-league ranks.

2.KIRK MULLER: Wearing the captain's C is one thing; performing like the team leader was another story. When Kirk outplayed Mario Lemieux in the two late-season meetings with Pittsburgh, Muller's league-wide esteem skyrocketed.

3. PAT VERBEEK: When Patty scored a penalty shot goal in the Devils most critical game against the Rangers it was not just the height of high drama but a huge confidence boost for Schony's skaters. 

4. JIM SCHOENFELD: Some coaches have it and some don't. Schony's plus personality rubbed off on the young team and the Garden Staters wanted to win for him as much as for themselves.

(NEXT CHAPTER: THE TWO MAKE OR BREAK GAMES THAT MADE THE DEVILS A PLAYOFF TEAM.)

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