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DEVILS OVER THE DECADES: Ch. 33 - Coaching Change; Cunnif to McVie

Stan Fischler recaps the start of the 1990-91 season and the reason for the coaching switch to McVie

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

For a time early in the 1990-91 season, life was a bowl of cherries for the New Jersey Devils. Then -- slowly but relentlessly -- it all went to the pits.

First, the good news:

John MacLean was headed for his third-straight forty-goal season. More good news.

Russian import Alexei Kasatonov had emerged as an effective two-way defenseman with All-Star potential.

Now the bad news:

The club was getting killed with bad penalties. More sour stuff.

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Goalie Sean Burke, a hero since the 1988 playoff run, was lustily booed by home fans.

Burke's reaction was not inclined to win friends nor influence people. "I'm playing for this team and the fans who stick with you, win or lose," he snapped. "The other ones can go to hell!"

Plus, Slava Fetisov's game was not up to the level that Cunniff had set for his Russian defenseman.

Between October 30 and November 15 the Devils lost six of eight games. What's more the transition from Sean Burke to Chris Terreri now had become apparent. So were Burke's depressing numbers.

After eight games, his won-loss mark was 2-5-1 with a 4.24 goals against average. Cunniff was about as diplomatic as the annoyed coach could be when evaluating the once Meadowlands hero.

"We'll keep Burke away for a little while," asserted Cunniff.

By contrast, Terreri was seizing his opportunity. Facing the Flyers at The Meadowlands, the Little Guy acrobatically led his club to a 3-2 victory. The cherry on the cake was an arresting kick save on a Mike Ricci penalty shot.

In a sense, Terreri was a perfect fit since he was well known to Lamoriello from Lou's days as hockey coach and athletic director at Providence College. Neither ever will forget the game Chris played on March 28, 1985.

"We were up against a powerful Boston College team," Lou recalled, "and beat them in triple overtime. Chris played the game of his life; made 62 saves and we won 4-3.

Terreri almost singlehandedly carried his club to the NCAA Division I Final and became the first goalie to place a water bottle on top of his net. That was a must earlier in the game when he was outshot 53-15 after three periods.

"As for being the first to put a water bottle on the net," Chris said, "I just did it and never knew it wasn't done before."

The same dauntless deportment evident when he was a collegian at Providence was apparent when Terreri replaced Burke in the New Jersey cage.

"My quickness helps," Chris pointed out. "It's a big asset for me."

While Terreri shined in goal, his mates were doing pancake imitations -- flat, flat, flat. Frustrated beyond reason, Cunniff pulled out every trick in his coaching bag in an effort to lift his delayed local back on its tracks.

"Skipper didn't rant or rave," said Cory Conacher. "He told us that if we practice badly, we'd play badly. We tried to get better."

But Cunniff could not catapult them higher than fourth in the standings. Nor could the Devils win two games in a row. Worse still, that old coaching bugaboo, dissension, began showing its ugly head in the dressing room.

Most prominent among the dissenters was Fetisov. When Cunniff told his Russian stalwart that he would be benched for a couple of games in February 1991, Slava felt as if he was about to be sent to Siberia.

Cunniff: "I don't know how Slava got so out of synch. We can't afford to go any further like this."

Then again, Lamoriello couldn't afford to allow his team to sink out of NHL sight and that's precisely what was taking place. As often is the case, it took one game -- and one post-game episode -- to force Lou to pull the chute.

The contest proved to be a dull-as-dishwater 3-1 loss to Boston. New Jersey's Streetcar Named Desire screeched to a halt. Skipper John was fit to scream.

"They have no intensity, no will to win and no character," he bellowed. Then, as he paused to cross the hall to his coach's lair, he took a parting shot:

"I wish somebody would come in here (Cunniff's room) so I could beat the crap out of them!"

It was, in a sense, the perfect squelch.

Except for only one thing; it cost Cunniff his job!

LISTS: FOUR REASONS WHY CUNNIFF WAS REPLACED

1. DISSENSION: When two key players -- Fetisov and Burke -- publicly displayed their displeasure, it suggested that there were more unhappy campers; and there were.

2. FALLING OUT OF THE RACE: His team's inconsistency hobbled Cunniff as the season moved from 1990 to 1991. That resulted in a sinking ship and the inevitable S.O.S.

3. GOALTENDING WOES: Instead of hitting his peak on a high, Burke somehow began losing his netminding edge. It cost the club games and inevitably the Skipper's job. Not to mention, a trade!

4. NEVER TOO LATE: Despite all the furor on the ice and in the dressing room, there still was time for a homestretch run to the playoffs. Ever pro-active, Lou knew that a move was imperative. So he made it!

(NEXT CHAPTER: THE HILARIOUS, HAPPY GO LUCKY ERA OF TOM MCVIE.)

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