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DEVILS OVER THE DECADES: Ch. 25 - Close but no Cigar

Stan Fischler describes Game 7 between the Devils and Bruins in the third round of the 1988 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to

At the start of the 1987-88 season nobody had picked the Devils to make the playoffs. Not even the optimists.

After all, they were oh-for-five tries why should anyone think differently about this sixth attempt at the post-season frolics?

Yet now it was the Spring of 1988 and New Jersey's skaters not only were still playing, they had reached Game Seven of the third playoff round.

A victory against the Bruins would thrust coach Jim Schoenfeld's skaters into the Stanley Cup Final. This Cinderella Story would play out at Boston Garden on May 14, 1988.

"Nobody has an advantage," asserted Devils defenseman Craig Wolanin. "It comes down to who's better mentally prepared. We have to go out there and just do it."

They almost did.

From the opening face-off, they went for the Boston jugular and the moment of truth came before the fourth minute of play with Kirk Muller orchestrating the offense.

For starters, the Devils captain made Bruins defenseman Michael Thelvin look like a statue at a Boston Museum. Muller's cueved stick spat a vehement hunk of vulcanized rubber at goalie Reggie Lemelin.

Desperately, Lemelin pushed his right pad sideways as hard as he could and got just enough leather on it. But an on rushing Pat Verbeek jumped on the rebound while the goaltender tried to regain his equilibrium.

For a split second, the Devils appear ready too enjoy the perfect hockey storm. Verbeek, their leading goal-scorer -- 46 red lights -- was in perfect position to pop the puck over the goal line.

"If ever it looked like a sure goal," said teammate Claude Loiselle, "this was it."

Well, almost. You see, the biscuit didn't quite land flat in a normal, full-ice, pancake position. Verbeek figured he had a split-second to make the puck's geography just right.

Meanwhile, the equally desperate Boston goalie was far to the right (Lemelin's left) at the edge of the crease. Verbeek was on the open left (Reggie's right). Lemelin's right hand, holding his stick, stretched back.

The big paddle was supposed to cover the emptiness of the middle of the yawning net. By goalie standards, it was nothing more than a "Hail Mary" maneuver.

Inwardly pleased with the possibilities, Verbeek dispatched the puck toward the bullseye. It was a "Can't Miss" proposition that, somehow, missed.

"I made the save of my life," Lemelin later told me. Simply this: "It was pure instinct; came from years of experience."

That it did. Reggie lunged across the crease and somehow -- with his right arm -- deflected the almost-sure-goal into No Man's Land.

In the press box and around the SRO Boston Garden, the thinking was unanimously the same. How did he do it? Verbeek looked as if he had just suffered a momentary case of lockjaw.

The score remained 0-0 and the Devils continued establishing a beachhead inside the Bruins zone. Next it was defenseman Tom Kurvers who figured the first goal was on his stick but, again, Lemelin was in complete denial.

"Lemelin had a thought," wrote Frank Brown of the New York Daily News. "'Look good early and your bench will be lifted.'"

Then it happened. With Schoenfeld's nemesis, Don Koharski, officiating, the Devils' normally penalty-free Mark Johnson was whistled off for "hooking."

With their power play in complete synch, the Bruins took the lead on Craig Janney's deflection of defenseman Ray Bourque's shot. The time was 8:59 of the first period with plenty of time remaining in the game.

But the Devils had their chances and got zip. The Bruins got another chance and went up 2-0 on a Moe Lemay deflection. In the second frame Rick Middleton beat Sean Burke and now it was 3-0.

Game over?

Not quite. Late in the second period John MacLean finally dented Lemelin's armor. "We weren't finished with them," insisted Ken Daneyko. "Not by a long shot."

Nor a Kirk Muller wrist shot; which beat Lemelin now reducing the Boston lead to a mere goal. Pressing for the tying shot, Schony's skaters tried all manner of maneuvers but remained stymied by Boston backcheckers -- and Lemelin.

With less than ten minutes remaining, Daneyko attempted to spur another counterattack. "All I wanted to do was make a move to the middle." the defenseman explained. "I let the puck go."

What Kenny didn't bargain for was Janney -- lurking like a U-Boat -- who torpedoed Daneyko's plan. Moving on the fly, the Bruins forward snared the rubber and was off and skating in on Burke.

The Devils goalie made a split-second poke check attempt and missed. Janney didn't. He slid the puck home at 12:05 and that was that. Whatever wheels the Devils had rolling turned into flat tires.

Cam Neely's goal made sure of that while Ken Linseman's open-netter was nothing more than a crowd-pleaser.

New Jersey's glorious hockey season ended with a 6-2 defeat. But, really, the losers emerged as winners in the sense that their grasp exceeded their reach and they returned to East Rutherford has heroes.

Schoenfeld: "Most of our players had never known the thrill of winning a playoff series before this and until the seventh game didn't know how much it hurts to lose one.

"I thought we might make a miracle of destiny comeback right up until the last 42 seconds. Hey, the boys gave me everything they had and I couldn't ask for anything more."

Lou Lamoriello, who imported Schoenfeld and then constructed this astonishing outfit, congratulated his troops. And while they were understandably downcast, they also experienced enormous pride in their achievements.

"We got on a roll," said Mark Johnson "and we started to believe it was never going to end. Now that it did, we're hurting. The dream of going on to the next round to play Edmonton is over."

Lamoriello: "The boys have proven that the Devils no longer will be two easy points for every opponent. We have established our identity."



1. GOALTENDING: Sean Burke emerged from the 1988 Winter Olympics to give New Jersey the best puck-stopper of the franchise's young life.

2. COACHING: Jim Schoenfeld took over a crumbling roster and pumped confidence into the lineup while blueprinting what evolved into a playoff masterpiece.

3. LEADERSHIP: Slowly but relentlessly, Lou Lamoriello re-designed the franchise into one of the most intelligently-operated in the NHL; a model for others to copy but never duplicate.

4. IDENTITY: By beating out the Rangers for a playoff berth and then eliminating the first-place Islanders in the opening round, the Devils took their place as the leading NHL team in the Metropolitan Area.

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