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DEVILS OVER THE DECADES: Ch. 34 - McVie for Victory

Stan Fischler discusses the Devils coaching change during the 1990-91 season

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

John Cunniff sealed his doom as New Jersey Devils head coach during the 1990-91 season when -- after a loss -- he invited any player to visit his dressing room, "So I could beat the crap out of him."
 
The next day Cunniff was applying for unemployment insurance.
 
Lou Lamoriello, The Prince of Pro-Activity, imported Tom McVie from the farm club in Utica faster than you can say Greyhound Bus.
 
"Making this kind of decision is never easy," Lou explained to the waiting media in East Rutherford. "The reasons for making the coaching change now are varied and numerous.
 
"At this stage of the season we feel our prospects remain very strong and that Tom McVie is the man who can get the most out of our team in the stretch run."

No stranger to New Jersey, the ebullient McVie had succeeded Billy MacMillan during the dismal second season of the franchise, in 1983-84. More recently, Tom had coached the Devils' AHL club in Utica for the past seven years.Alternately blunt and realistic, McVie was in no mood for one-liners t his new debut press conference although he had a reputation for being king of the one-liners.

"I'm not here to make friends," he told a most eager audience. "This team has been up and down -- one good game followed by a bad one. The organization believes that I can get New Jersey into the playoffs."

The words were music to media ears except for one skeptic who muttered under his breath, "Talk is cheap; does Tommy knows what he's up against?"

McVie knew. He checked the standings and then asked for an aspirin bottle. With the exception of the sinking Islanders, every club in the Devils division seemed hellbent for the post-season.

One reporter, eyes to eyes, demanded to know if Tom had any rabbits in his hat and, if not, how will he pull off a playoff berth?

McVie: "I believe in discipline and hard work, and I won't be afraid to go into the dressing room between periods and tell them if they're not working."

That was the serious side of McVie. A few reporters who remembered Tom from 'way back knew that he was as puckish as they come. After the formal press conference, a couple of old pals cornered him and Tommy smiled.

"I guess I'm supposed to ride in on a white horse and deliver. But you can't expect me to come in here and do it alone, even though Paladin did. Those Western towns were smaller!"

Paladin, he was not. A loss to the Islanders, a tie with Buffalo and another defeat -- this time delivered by Winnipeg -- shattered any miraculous musings.

But there was a difference. Defeats did not depress the dressing room as was the case under Cunniff. McVie had a knack for lifting spirits. After a team meeting, he quipped, "If I wasn't coaching, I'd be driving the Zamboni!"

That got resounding laughs and an easing of tension plus a sense that good tidings was just around the calendar.

At last, a turnabout was evident at The Meadowlands on March 13 when defenseman Alexei Kasatonov scored the game-winner in a 3-2 decision over Toronto, followed by a 5-2 romp over the Rangers.

It further confirmed the wisdom of Lamoriello's pre-season deals. Claude Lemieux tallied two critical goals against New York while Laurie Boschman was like an interceptor plane swooping down on the enemy time after time.

"We felt that we were finally on the upswing," said Lemieux, "and that with a win or two here and there we'd be right in the mix."

The turning point game was played in East Rutherford on March 19, 1991. Pittsburgh -- the future Stanley Cup champion -- provided the opposition while McVie's brigade provided the victory.

Patrik Sundstrom's two goals made the difference in the 5-4 win and lifted New Jersey right up there with the Penguins, Flyers and Capitals in the run to the finish line. The Devils were paying attention to the coach's blueprint.

"You got to go to the net if you want to score," said McVie, "and we did."

A suddenly revived Sundstrom certainly helped when help was most needed.

Sundstrom: "It had been a frustrating season for me up until now and for the whole team as well. Hopefully we can make a positive move toward the playoffs."

McVie had renewed confidence in Sean Burke's goaltending and started the big guy on March 21 for the beginning of a three-game road trip. Following the match at Chicago Stadium, the Devils next would meet the Habs and Rangers.

Burke was good in Chi and Johnny MacLean delivered a late goal to ensure a 2-2 tie and a valued point. "We may not be winning consistently," McVie said, "but we're playing well. The tie with Chicago showed me a lot."

Ties with Montreal and the Blueshirts that followed brought McVie's men close to the elusive playoff berth. They returned home on March 27 against Hartford with a feeling that this was just the start of something big.

Slava Fetisov seemed like a new man and third-liners such as Doug Brown and Claude Loiselle were contributing big-time. Yet Hartford nursed a 3-2 lead well into the third period.

"For us it turned out like the old Western movies," chuckled McVie, "when the cavalry came to the rescue."

Sure enough, Brendan Shanahan galloped in with the tying goal at 9:32 of the third period and Doug Brown lit the red bulb early in overtime. One night later Washington beat Philly and, as promised, McVie secured a playoff berth.

Turning philosopher, Tommy had his tongue well-ensconced in cheek when he put a Plato-like observation on his homestretch feat.

"Emotion carries you a long way," Tommy grinned. "But it's a short-time friend. What you need is a long-term companion like talent."

Next up as New Jersey's playoff foe was the NHL's most talented team -- the Mario Lemieux-led Penguins, Patrick Division Champions.

LISTS: FOUR PLUSSES MCVIE HAD OVER CUNNIFF BEHIND THE BENCH:

1. FRESH FACE: The team had grown stale under Cunniff while McVie provided a new approach and renewed confidence.

2. SUPPORTING BURKE: While Cunniff had given up on Big Sean, McVie went back to the 1988 hero and Burke proved effective again.

3. LOU'S ACQUISITIONS: Both Claude Lemieux and Laurie Boschman played well for Cunniff but each lifted his game even higher in the homestretch when needed most.

4. TALENT WILL OUT: The team had potential but not until McVie's arrival did the likes of Patrick Sundstrom and Slava Fetisov -- among other aces -- become major factors to help secure the playoff berth.

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