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DEVILS OVER THE DECADES: Ch. 22 - Goodbye Caps, Hello Boston

Stan Fischler chats about the end of the Devils 1988 playoff series against Washington

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

The difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer --

  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers slogan throughout World War II.

Members of the1988 version of the New Jersey Devils were too young to have personally experienced Uncle Sam's Army Engineers World War II theme. That was too long ago for the young Garden State skaters.

But Jim Schoenfeld's stickhandling corps sure played hockey like they wanted to make those hoary fighting words come to life on National Hockey League rinks.

Still, on the last day in April, 1988, the Devils mettle would be tested as never before in the second round of the playoffs against the Capitals. Game Seven was IT, and nobody meant maybe either.

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Two days earlier, and just a win away from disposing of Washington in Game Six, Schony's sextet flopped to defeat, 7-2. It was an ominous loss.

First-string goalie Sean Burke was riddled with five goals over two periods and was given the hook by his coach. Was the 21-year-old NHL freshman folding under pressure? It sure had all signs of that dirty hockey word -- choke.

Had Burke lost his touch? Was he hiding an injury? Dare the Skipper start him in this make-or-break seventh contest -- or does Schoenfeld gamble on aging Bob Sauve?

Debates among fans and the media produced no logical conclusion. On the one hand, Sauve had the experience of having played 31 playoff games and, furthermore, never let the Devils down.

Then again, Burke was Schony's unequivocal starter -- with only two playoff games being the exceptions -- and, besides, Sean still had the coach's confidence.

Unbeknownst to anyone the Gentleman Jim's final goaltending decision was made in a rather unusual setting -- the Visitors' shower room at Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland.

After the Pre-Game Seven skate, Schoenfeld walked into the Devils clubhouse, peeked around as if he was playing "Hide And Seek," and finally reached the shower room.

Standing under the waterfall, was Burke, finishing his shower. Jim looked around for a piece of soap; found one and tossed it at his goalie.

Plop! Burke fumbled the soap for an error.

The Skipper picked up the wet cake bar and, quick, under-handed it to his goalie.

Plop! Error Number Two.

Nonplussed, Schony grabbed the hunk of sweet-smelling deodorant and flipped it at Burke one more time.

"I got it on the third try," Sean chuckled afterward, "and Jim said I was playing in Game Seven."

Still, two errors on three tries hardly was an encouraging save percentage. But if the coach was worried, he concealed his concern like a possum hiding in a hollow log.

Schoenfeld: "Granted, Sean dropped the first two but he kept the soap in front of him. I figured we had a chance to win if he only gave up two goals."

Burke seconded the motion. Not only did he thank his coach for giving him a second chance -- for the second series in a row -- but he allowed that he had been "lousy" in Game Six. 

Burke: "Any time I've had a bad game like that one, I want to go right back in as quickly as possible. I would have understood if coach went with Bob because he's played great goal for us."

The 18,130 spectators who filled Capital Centre for Game Seven were aware of the multi-drama unfolding before them. As expected, they whooped it up at the opening face-off. But the whooping stopped within eighteen seconds.

Kirk Muller had accepted a pass from Aaron Broten and -- quicker than you can say Pete Peeters -- whipped the rubber past Washington's goaltender.

Meanwhile, Burke was giving the home club nothing but saves until Claude Loiselle deflected a Bruce Driver shot past Peeters 12:01 into the game.

It was already 2-0, Devils, almost too good to be true. 2-0 after the first period.

Not that the Capitals were without chances. Through the fifteen-minute mark of the middle period, Washington enjoyed five power plays but came off with nothing better than a goose egg.

The hope on the Visitors bench was that they could escape the second period with the two-goal advantage, then regroup -- freshen up -- and emerge to preserve the lead.

It was a good idea except that Caps defenseman Grant Ledyard wasn't listening. At 15:21 of the middle period, he sent a laser at Burke who handled the missile-like that first slippery soap. Oops! 2-1 New Jersey.

Ledyard's partner, Garry Galley wasn't paying attention to the Devils game plan either. With only six seconds left on the second-period clock, Burke was bent over picking a second Home Team goal out of the net; courtesy of Galley.

Journalists in the press box called it "a flukey goal" but it counted and the Scoreboard read. DEVILS 2, CAPITALS 2.

During the intermission, the general feeling was that Bryan Murray's outfit had New Jersey not only on the ropes but on the way down with a near knockout blow with Galley's tally.

(Broadcaster's Note: Working for SportsChannel, I was handling between periods interviews. About five minutes before the end of the second period, I had requested Joe Cirella as my choice and was told it was fine.

After Galley's disheartening goal, I assumed that Schony would keep everyone in the room. To my surprise, who shows up but the Devils' defenseman Cirella who was just a fine interview. After he left I felt that if he was so cool about the rest of the game, his teammates would be as well.)

The press room between periods was jammed with hockey scouts and other NHL personnel including Bruins personnel since the winner of the Washington-New Jersey series would play Boston next.

"I'm surprised that the Devils have so much poise," said John Cunniff, then representing the Bruins. "After Galley scored that fluke goal, the Devils could have fallen apart."

They still could collapse. The score now was 2-2 and the third period was underway. This was the kind of heart-throbber that a famed Hollywood screenwriter-director such as Martin Scorsese might have scripted.

Back and forth -- literally a tug of war on skates -- the Capitals and Devils exchanged thrusts. Five minutes into the third period, the score was 2-2. Ten minutes gone; ditto. Eleven, twelve, thirteen; still a draw. 

Enthralled with the action, the Bruins' man, Conniff marveled at how the young New Jersey skaters hung in there. "Staying with so experienced team as the Caps is what impressed me most; especially so late in the third period."

Many in the press box believed that overtime was inevitable but the players showed no desire for a sudden-death period. Action from the ten-minute mark on seemed just like sudden death. Next goal should be the winner.

Finally, a break. Mark Johnson organized a Devils assault, skating over the Washington blue line. Sighting defenseman Craig (Wooly) Wolanin at the right point, Johnson skimmed a pass to his backliner.

"SHOOT! SHOOT!" came desperate cries from New Jersey's bench. Schony's men knew that Wolanin owned one of the hardest shots on the team but too often was reluctant to release it.

This time the drive was Wooly-fast, which was just fine, and looked very much on target. Goalie Pete Peeters tracked the black sphere from his encampment. Suddenly, the disruptive body of John MacLean altered Peeters' focus.

Cleverly, Johnny Mac lifted his stick just high enough to upset Peeters and just low enough to tip the biscuit into the oven. The time was 13:39 and the score, 3-2, New Jersey.

Now the onus was on Burke to preserve the one-goal margin. Schoenfeld looked on like a proud parent as his goalie thwarted the Capitals left, right and sideways. 

"Sean kept his composure," Gentleman Jim remembered. "The Caps did a lot of things to distract him but he stayed with it."

With more than six minutes remaining to tie the score, Washington dispatched waves into the enemy zone as the clock ticked. Finally, the curtain came down, closing what now had become the Devils biggest win -- 3-2.

With such a momentous victory, innumerable heroes emerge but, by far, the chief protagonist had to be Burke. Sean demonstrated that his coach had wisdom. Schony's gamble against the odds turned out to be prophetic.

Burke: "I had something to prove to myself and to everybody; that I could fight back from a game like Game Six and be a plus for my team."

A virtual nobody in the hockey universe only months earlier, Burke's stock had catapulted to a level where he now was being compared to the NHL's finest puck-stoppers.

"He really came through for us in the third period," asserted Schoenfeld in the winner's dressing room. "As for the other guys, I feel privileged to be the coach of this team. I feel so proud of these guys. I haven't seen a group like them."

Arguably the biggest -- if not longest -- smile in the Visitors' locker room belonged to Devils owner Dr. John McMullen standing alongside his hand-picked general manager, Lou Lamoriello. 

Lou's present for his wizard coach was a T-shirt emblazoned with the words:

NEW JERSEY DEVILS: 1988 PATRICK DIVISION PLAYOFF CHAMPIONS.

Another Game Seven hero, John MacLean, donned his T-shirt as a media posse

 asked about his series-winning score. Over and over, Johnny Mac explained how he deflected Wooly's shot past Peeters.

"I want to continue this dream," Mac concluded. "Please don't wake me up."

Outside, the Bruins man-at-the-game, John Conniff, had a comeback comment.: "Tell Johnny we'll be waiting for him in Boston!"

A good thirty-two years later, it's still hard to believe that Jim Schoenfeld's doughty Devils were marching into Round Three, 1988 against the Big, Bad Bruins.

LISTS: FOUR REASONS WHY NEW JERSEY REACHED THE THIRD ROUND:

1. PERSEVERANCE: The Devils ability to rebound after Washington's disheartening tying goals late in the second period of Game Seven proved to be a difference-maker.

2. GOALIE STRATEGY: Jim Schoenfeld knew when to insert Bob Sauve to give Sean Burke a respite. While Burke failed in Game Six he redeemed himself -- and his coach's plan -- in the decisive finale.

3. THE CLUTCH SCORER: In the end, Washington needed goals from their defensemen whereas the series was decided by New Jersey's consistent clutch player, John MacLean.

4. CHEMISTRY: More than anything, the Devils considered themselves "a team of destiny." They played through the series as if they believed they ultimately would win -- and they did. The "impossible" took a little longer!

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