It was the game that really turned the franchise around. -- Ken Daneyko
SETTING THE SCENE FOR WHAT EVOLVED AS THE FRANCHISE'S FIRST GAME OF ALL GAMES:
It is Sunday evening April 3, 1988 and popular sportscaster Bill Mazer is preparing his 10 p.m. Sports Extra hour-long program on New York's Channel 5.
Mazer, one of the first to broadcast NHL network hockey for CBS, is a staunch Devils fan and said that if the Rangers made the playoffs that he would be sad. But now he has to prepare his show while awaiting the Devils make or break match in Chicago.
Having won their game, the Rangers gather in the clubhouse to watch the New Jersey-Chicago finale on television.
The Blueshirts now have 82 points and 36 wins. They know that if the Devils lose or even tie Chicago, New York will have prevailed. But a Devils win will leave each team with 82 points.
To break the fourth place deadlock, the NHL ruled that the team with more wins gets to the post-season. Thus, a New Jersey triumph will mark the franchise's first march on the trail to the Stanley Cup.
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At Chicago Stadium, the rival goaltenders were big Sean Burke for New Jersey and diminutive Darren Pang for the home club. Sitting in the Devils locker room, defenseman Ken Daneyko was a blend of nerves and anticipation.
"You could see the excitement of our young group," said Mister Devil, who never will forget the scene. "We were nervous as can be. Excited, crazy. We were a tight-knit group; a bunch of young guys living the dream."
Playing a cautious but determined game, the Devils kept the Blackhawks scoreless in the first period; but that wasn't good enough because Pang wasn't letting any enemy sniper score either and the first frame ended 0-0.
No question, the previous night's victory at the Meadowlands against the playoff-bound Islanders had sapped plenty of the Devils energy, individually and collectively.
Daneyko: "By this time, we were going strictly on adrenaline."
Kenny's adrenaline tank was full and at 11:07 of the second period Daneyko beat Pang and the scoreless tie now went to 1-0 for New Jersey.
In author Matthew Blittner's book, "Unforgettable NJ Devils," Daneyko recalled the prelude of puck-chasing that would lead to his rare goal. After all, Ken was renowned for his defense not offense.
"Kirk Muller started the play," Ken recalled. "He made an unbelievable move through the neutral zone. He gained the blue line and one-handed the puck around a Chicago defender.
"Then, he spun it back as I came into the play, inside the Chicago blue line. At that point he set up the puck for me like a tee in golf. I took the snapshot and got real, good wood on the puck; beat Panger and we were up one-zip."
Ah, but the joy was short-lived.
Within two minutes, Denis Savard scored for Chicago with plenty of help from big Rick Vaive who successfully screened Burke.
Poof! Just like that -- 35 seconds later -- Blackhawks defenseman Bob Murray's right point drive was re-directed behind Burke by Dirk Graham. The Devils sagged on their bench.
The last thing Schony's skaters needed was to exit the second period behind the home team. The first thing they needed was a power play and they got it late in the middle frame.
With less than ten seconds remaining in the period, burly defenseman Craig Wolanin was working the point on the power play.
Schoenfeld had the big fellow out there because he knew all about Wolanin's shot. In a different game against Chicago, Wolanin won the contest by sending a laser all the way from center ice past the un-screened goalie.
Craig shot and Pat Verbeek, cruising outside the crease, re-directed the blast past Pang. Only eight seconds remained before the buzzer sounded. This time New Jersey's bench joyously rose as one as if headed for the ceiling.
But in the third period Wolanin's howitzer backfired on him and his team. Midway through the third period he fired another boomer of a drive only this time it was blocked by Chicago's Troy Murray.
With nobody between himself and Sean Burke, the Windy City ace set off a barrage of cheers in Chicago Stadium with the go-ahead goal. Curiously, when the red light flashed, Devils fans were crushed. But not Schoenfeld.
"Heck," said the coach, looking backward, "we had over ten minutes left. I felt that if we could at least tie the score, we could win it in overtime."
Gentleman Jim must have known something. Or, at least knew his snipers' potential. Just before the twelve-minute mark of the third stanza, Mark Johnson tried to beat Pang but the goaltender made the save; only to allow a rebound.
If ever the Devils possessed a Johnny-On-The-Spot, MacLean was the man. Skating in from the left side he fired Johnson's rebound into the twine.
There now were seven minutes and three seconds left in the third period after the tying goal. "Go for it!" was the order of the night as the clock ticked off the final minutes. Both Burke and Pang hung tough and it still was a 3-3 thriller.
"We knew that a tie would do us absolutely no good," Muller later asserted. "The trick now was to play a solid game the rest of the way and hope for a break in overtime."
At last, the signal went off summoning the teams for the overtime period.
(In his 66th Street studio in Manhattan, Bill Mazer was upset because it was time for his "Sports Extra" program to begin and he had no news from Chicago. "All we can do" he told me, "is go on the air and wait until something happens -- if it happens. I'll have a runner watch the game and notify us."
The "if" meant a Devils victory and then a bee-line to the playoffs. We took our seats in the studio, Mazer did his intro and Bill turned his attention to the script at hand. There was nothing to do but block the Devils game out of our minds.
But I couldn't do that, and the longer it took for some news, the worse -- it seemed to me -- for the Devils. In this case, no news was bad news.)
Following the center ice face-off at Chicago Stadium, the Devils pressed for the winner while careful to tend to defensive work as well to prevent a Chicago OT score.
But there also was a time clock to watch. It ticked past the two-minute mark which meant that New Jersey had less than three minutes to produce the winner.
Now a full-ice Devils press was on, sending the home team into an orderly retreat. Chicago's defenders owned the puck and tried dispatching it along the left boards, safely over the blue line.
But Schony's gifted defenseman Joe Cirella was guarding the gap and managed to snare the rubber before it crossed the line. Cirella's partner, Ken Daneyko, was at the other side watching the pivotal play unfold.
Daneyko: "It felt like it was all taking place in slow motion. When Joe got the puck, he took a quick, little snapshot. It rebounded from Pang and kicked right out for someone to grab."
John MacLean, deeper inside the Chicago zone, fixed his eyes on the flying rubber. "When Joe took the shot from the point," MacLean remembered, "I was on my way to the net."
Daneyko: "I was five or six feel behind Johnny Mac. I could see him perfectly at this point because by now he had gotten the rebound off Pang. I was right behind Johnny when he took the shot."
MacLean: "My only thought at that moment was that our whole season could go down the drain if I missed. When the puck landed on my stick, I gave it everything that I had."
Daneyko: "I had a pretty good vantage point and I could see the puck going in; all I cared about was that it was in and after that it was pandemonium. We went nuts; like kids in a candy store with a lot of money in our pockets."
MacLean: "Once the red light went on we were ready for the first time in the season to let it all hang out."
(Watching his Rangers teammates moan in the New York locker room, goalie John Vanbiesbrouck hung his head and muttered, "I can't believe it. I just can't believe it.")
(The scene was vastly different at the Channel 5 sports desk as Bill Mazer focused on a football video. Suddenly, his runner burst in with a huge hunk of cardboard in his hands and lifted it so that Bill and I could plainly see:
JOHN MACLEAN -- 2:21 OF OVERTIME. After the show Mazer walked me to a bar down the block and we celebrated with a pair of Bioody Marys.)
The victors dressing room was a compact version of New Year's Eve at Times Square. Lou Lamoriello and Jim Schoenfeld toasted their players while the media horde went from Devil to Devil doing interviews.
"It still hasn't quite sunk in," explained Cirella, the architect of MacLean's stunner.
With a record of 38-36-6 the boys from East Rutherford posted the first winning season in franchise history.
It was a passion play with a surplus of melodrama and, best of all, a happy ending.
In a corner, there was a man in civilian clothes with the widest grin of all: Dr. John McMullen!
There were many reasons for Doc Mac to be happy not the least of which was a prescient observation by Ken Daneyko:
"We beat out the Rangers for the playoff berth, didn't we? Next is the Islanders and we can beat them 'cause we've proved that anything's possible."
LISTS: TEN HEROES OF THE DEVILS RUN TO THE PLAYOFFS:
1. SEAN BURKE: The rookie goalie posted a 10-1-0 record down the stretch. For sheer heroism, nobody topped the big guy.
2. JOHN MACLEAN: His Devils needed the really BIG goal and young Johnny came through, special delivery.
3. PAT VERBEEK: The gutsy forward led the team in goals (46), game-winning goals (8) and plus-minus (plus-20)
4. AARON BROTEN: Set career high for points (83) and assists (57). He scored on a penalty shot on March 24, 1988 against the Blues in the playoff drive.
5. CLAUDE LOISELLE: A defensive forward, he finished with a career high 17 goals and his sixth goal in ten games, in April 2 win over the Islanders.
6. JOE CIRELLA: The defenseman alertly kept the puck in play along the left boards in the overtime clincher and then put a shot on goal. The rebound was snared by John MacLean and the rest is history.
7. DOUG BROWN: Like Loiselle, the Redhead was an exceptional penalty killer and scored a strategic goal in the March 20 turnaround game against the Caps.
8. BOB SAUVE: When Sean Burke needed a break in the stretch, Little Bobby game through with a big game in Buffalo on March 25. The Devils got a point (2-2) and Sauve's late stopper on a Ken Priestlay breakaway was THE SAVE.
9. LOU LAMORIELLO: A disciple of the pro-active school of general managers, Lou fired Doug Carpenter at the right time and hired Jim Schoenfeld just in time to coach the team to a playoff berth.
10. JIM SCHOENFELD: A cheerleader extraordinaire and brilliant strategist, Gentleman Jim pushed all the right buttons to clinch a playoff berth.
(NEXT CHAPTER: BRING ON THE ISLANDERS! THE DEVILS FIRST PLAYOFF.)