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DEVILS OVER THE DECADES: Ch. 31 - 1990s - Playoffs or Bust!

Stan Fischler writes about the homestretch of the 1989-90 season and New Jersey's need to make the playoffs

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to

Playoffs or bust -- Devils mantra heading into homestretch, 1990

Lou Lamoriello didn't know what to figure.

Then again neither did anyone else connected with the New Jersey Devils general manager.

All anyone in Devils Country new was that a post-season berth seemed in the "Iffy League."

But everyone at The Meadowlands agreed on one thing -- making the playoffs was a must -- but the "how" of it was perplexing to all concerned.

"One night the team looked like world-beaters," said Dr. John McMullen, the club owner, "and the next night we were losers."

Which explains why coach John Conniff's sextet danced around the .500 mark
throughout February 1990. Now it was March with the Trade Deadline looming
six days into the new month. No time for comedy.

"If a deal can be made that'll help us," Lamoriello allowed, "then I'll be there to make it; as long as it can help us make the playoffs."

Two days before the deadline -- March 6, 1990 -- Lou began actively searching for a trading partner. His club's record was a tepid 27-31-8 for 62 points; not exactly playoff-bound arithmetic.

Bingo! Lou made a move.

Prior to the deadline he dealt his big, veteran forward Jim Korn to Calgary for a fifth round pick. But that was small potatoes compared with his encore exchange.

Former first round pick, defenseman Craig Wolanin was dispatched to the Quebec Nordiques along with another blue liner (named later) Randy Velischek for future Hall of Famer, forward Peter Stastny.

Already a hockey legend in his native Slovakia, Stastny was renowned for a magical blend of toughness, skill and savvy.

"I believe I can help this club make the post-season," Stastny insisted upon reaching East Rutherford. "The Devils have a playoff lineup."

Maybe, yes; maybe, no. A lot would depend on how fast and how well Peter blended into the lineup as a plus player.

Early returns were good. With the Slovakian ace in the lineup they beat the St.Louis Blues 2-1 at the Meadowlands and followed that with a 4-2 decision over the New York Islanders.

On March 10th, Peter's former teammates on the Nordiques would realize how much they missed their buddy. Peter proved a dominant force in a 9-3 demolition of Quebec.

Suddenly, a playoff berth wasn't beyond the blue horizon. Matter of fact the Devils could almost see it. Fortified by Stastny and the Russian defense pair -- Slava Fetisov and Alexei Kasitonov -- New Jersey was now 32-32-8.

"We've found the groove again," enthused large David Maley, a constantly improving defensive forward. "If all goes well, we should make the playoffs and maybe even get as high as first place in the Patrick Division."

To do so, Cunniff's crew had to neutralize the Philadelphia Flyers on March 20th. The keen interstate rivals now were galloping neck and neck toward the NHL's Finish Line.

If the Devils lost at The Spectrum, their lead over Philly would be down to a precarious point. Egged on both the home crowd, the Flyers jumped into a 1-0 lead on Ken (The Rat) Linseman's goal.

Then, New Jersey took command. Stastny once again proved his worth by tying the count and then Kasatonov set up ever-reliable John MacLean who put the Visitors ahead to stay. The final count was 5-2 for the Devs.

Meanwhile, the Alexei-Slava duet continued to make beautiful music together on the pond. They maintained their smooth, effective play in the next game; this one at Buffalo.

Nursing a 4-3 lead in the game's waning moments, the Devils faced a six-on-five last-minute assault when the Sabres pulled goalie Clint Malarchuk for an extra attacker.

Less than a dozen seconds remained when the Sabres thought they had the tying goal. Hard-shooting defenseman Grant Ledyard's labelled blast never got to the twine thanks to Fetisov's human cannonball dive that blocked the shot.

That was New Jersey's playoff-clincher. Next objective was second place in the division. A trip to the Nation's Capital could make that a reality. Taking the tough Capitals would be no easy task.

Turned out that he Garden Staters' 4-1 decision was remarkably simple. "If these guys stay hot," said Bob Stampleman, publisher of Action Sports Hockey magazine, "they could wind up a long-shot for the Cup."

Although the New York Rangers had clinched first in the division, they too would test New Jersey's mettle. Granted, it wasn't as easy as beating Washington but the Devils prevailed, 6-4.

Once again, the Russian Connection proved decisive. Slava was in on five goals while Kasatonov seemed to be doing all the right things at the right time. Cunniff had splendidly orchestrated their shift time and they followed through.

Cunniff: "Slava now is comfortable in the NHL. He and Alex have given us a new foundation on defense."

On March 30th, the curtain descended on the regular campaign; Final game: Devils vs. Bruins at Boston Garden. In its own way, the contest had more than passing interest. Cunniff's skaters knew it could be a record-setter.

The math was simple enough. A season earlier, the Devils finished at 38-36-6; totaling 82 points.

When they landed in Beantown a year later the tantalizing mark ws 37-34-8 for another 82 points. A tie or a win would set a new team standard.

Alas, it appeared they were going to blow it. With less than a half-minute remaining in the game, New Jersey was down 3-2, but not out.

It was none other than a very underrated Devil who put them in; and that was Bruce Driver. With only 26 seconds left on the clock, the doughty defenseman unloaded the shot that set a new franchise mark of 83 points.

"First mission accomplished," cheered Maley in the Jersey dressing room. "Second one coming up -- the playoffs!"

The opening night question -- Playoffs or bust? -- was answered. Now everyone in the room wondered how far this surprising team could go.


1. CHANGING COACHES: Cunniff needed time to acclimate himself to an NHL head-coaching role but once he did the Devils went 5-0-1 in the homestretch.

2. PICKING PETER: Lamoriello's deal for Stastny was a team-turn-around move. The future Hall of Famer demonstrated his clutch-ability in the stretch.

3. MULTI-GOALIES: In addition to the seasoned Sean Burke, Lou added Providence College ace Chris Terreri who not only well-motivated Burke but would eventually bid for th e number-one goalie gig.

4. RUSHING RUSSIANS: New Jersey's odd couple on the blue line -- Fetisov and Kasatonov -- proved to be a delightful duo; efficient, experienced and excellent.


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