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DEVILS OVER THE DECADES: Ch. 17 - Playoff Bound - Almost!

Stan Fischler continues to document the Devils history, focusing on the 1987-88 run in the latest chapter of Devils Over the Decades

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

Dr. John McMullen was running out of patience. 

So was a legion of New Jersey Devils loyalists. 

"It's going on six years and we still haven't made the playoffs," lamented Doc Mac, the Devils intensely passionate owner. "When will it ever happen?"

But the 1987-88 National Hockey League race was different; at least for the Garden State sextet. There was hope -- thanks to first-year general manager Lou Lamoriello and his hand-picked-mid-season coach, Jim Schoenfeld.

Heading into the final weekend of the campaign, coach Schoenfeld's stickhandlers were this close to making the post-season jubilee. 

With a pair of games left to play, the Devils still held fifth place, but trailing the rival Rangers by a measly point. And the Blueshirts also had a pair of contests

 to complete, first with the Jets in Winnipeg and then home against Quebec.

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"Our hope," said Devils goalie Sean Burke, "was that the Rangers would lose at least one of their games." 

Otherwise, even two New Jersey wins would be wasted in their latest playoff crusade. So, for starters, the Devils did scoreboard-watching, praying hard for Winnipeg.

"We need someone to bounce New York," said a hopeful Schony.

For a good part of the Jets contest, Schoenfeld was all frowns. The Rangers led 6-5 late in the third period and New York's two points seemed in the bag.

 Enter Lady Luck, New Jersey variety.

With the Rangers game nearly over, Jets sharpshooter Paul MacLean beat goalie John Vanbiesbrouck to tie the score at 6-6. And despite a furious overtime assault by Winnipeg, the Rangers emerged with a precious point.

In the end, however, the point would prove more valuable to New Jersey than New York.

Still breathing, the Devils sat two points behind the Rangers -- with a game in hand. That gave New Jersey a potential four points to turn the elusive playoff trick into reality.

First on Schony's agenda was a playoff-bound Islanders outfit led by future Hall of Famers Denis Potvin and Bryan Trottier. The Devils made it look easy at The Meadowlands -- five different players scored -- in a 5-2 triumph. 

New Jersey now posted a 37-36-6 record, good for 80 points and a tie with New York for fourth place. 

Now the attention turned to the Rangers who would play their final game at Madison Square Garden against Quebec before the Devs faced the Blackhawks at Chicago Stadium later that Sunday night.

"We should beat Quebec," said Rangers coach Michel Bergeron. "Then all we can do is hope the Devils don't beat Chicago."

As far as New Jersey sports historians are concerned, April 3, 1988 thus became the Devils most important date in franchise history at that point in time. Meanwhile, the final possibilities were melodramatic, to say the least.

For starters, even if the Rangers topped the Nordiques, the Devils still had a chance to clinch. Both teams would have 82 points but Schony's troops would prevail with 38 total wins to 36 for New York.

(According to NHL rules, a fourth-place deadlock is broken by giving preference to the team with more wins.) Hence, the Garden Staters would be in if only they could emerge from the Windy City with a win.

At long last, the curtain rose on one of the most pulsating finishes in the long history of the NHL.

Act One went to the Blueshirts. As coach Bergeron predicted, his Blueshirts easily beat Quebec at The Garden.

Act Two began for the Devils in one of the league's most hostile arenas, Chicago Stadium, home of a battle-proven Blackhawks squad.

The words of one New Jersey fan said it all for the citizens of Devils Country: "It would be a pity for the club having come so far, for the boys to lose their chance on the last night of the season."

LISTS: FOUR FACTORS WHICH LED THE DEVILS TO GAME 80 AND HOPE:

1. GOALTENDING: Sean Burke boasted an extraordinary 9-1-0 record heading into Game 80. 

2. SPREADING THE GOALS: In their pivotal 5-2 final weekend win over the Islanders, goal scorers included Claude Loiselle, Pat Verbeek, Kirk Muller, Aaron Broten and Patrick Sundstrom.

3. THE CHEERLEADERS: With Lou Lamoriello and Jim Schoenfeld at the helm, the Devils featured one of the most interesting inspirational leaders in the league; and their magic worked.

4. THE BOSS AND BASEBALL PAL: Dr. John McMullen was unlike other team owners. He was with the team more than others of his ilk. And Doc Mac's famed sidekick -- baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra -- was around to inspire hope.

(NEXT CHAPTER: HOW THE DEVILS MIRACULOUSLY GAINED THEIR FIRST PLAYOFF BERTH.)

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