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SUNDAYS WITH STAN: A Showdown Season

Resch vs. Carpenter; A playoff run falls short

by Stan Fischler @StanFischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

With Doug Carpenter now firmly gripping the coaching reins, his vexing Devils had a question to answer: Could this team finally rise in the challenging 1985-86 National Hockey League standings?

Yes or no; can they once and for all make the playoffs? Yes or no, does Carpy have the coaching goods; or will he get carped ?

The red-headed mentor had shown promise, to be sure, but promise without a playoff berth was not enough to satisfy hard-rooting, frustrated owner Dr. John McMullen. 

"I felt that the time had come to give our fans more to cheer about in our fourth season," The Boss explained. "A playoff berth is what I'm hoping for this year."

Which is why the fresh campaign loomed with such importance; not only for the man who paid the bills but for the changing roster as well.

The growing hockey club's ability to win also had importance for the player who had become the face of the franchise, goalie Glenn (Chico) Resch. For one thing Chico was not at the top of Carpy's Like List.

The affable goaltender's effusive personality -- not to mention priceless quotes -- overshadowed Carpenter's subdued persona. At times Chico was downright annoying to his bench boss. 

Goalie v. Coach became an issue that perplexed the press which raised yet another query -- who would survive until April 1986. Resch or Carpenter?

As an inspirational leader, Carpenter had other challenges to overcome. Not the least of them dealt with player morale. Newark Star-Ledger beat writer Rich Chere, for one, cited a clash between the coach and a few veterans.

That said, the new campaign produced hope as well as dismay. The club was shocked to learn that promising forward Pat Verbeek had severed his left thumb in a summertime farm accident.

No less than six hours of microsurgery were required to repair the damaged thumb so that, at some point, Verbeek could resume his career. "Pat's future is a major concern," said general manager Max McNab.

Meanwhile, McNab went shopping for goalie insurance in addition to some oomph up front. The result was the signing of free agent goalie Alain Chevrier as well as free agent forward Peter McNab.

"Both will add to our depth where we need it," Max explained, "But I'm not through yet."

He wasn't kidding. In a trade with St.Louis, McNab sent forward Rick Meagher for gritty winger Perry Anderson. And to illuminate more red lights he got Mark Johnson from the Blues for Shawn Evans.

Last -- and as it would turn out, not least -- defenseman Randy Velischek was plucked in the waiver draft just hours before the curtain climbed on the new season. 

"People are talking about us making the playoffs," commented Resch. "I say that we have the players to do it this year."

Key media outlets agreed. On October 9th, the New York Times echoed the optimism with a headline: DEVILS FORWARDS BRING NEW HOPE.

Carpenter's two top forward lines featured Johnson centering for Kirk Muller and Tim Higgins. McNab would be the pivot between Mel Bridgman and Rich Preston.

The goaltending slate blended quantity with quality. Resch, Chevrier and youthful Craig Billington all survived the training camp cuts and Carpenter had the reason why:

"I'm equally impressed with all three goalies," the coach insisted, "and that's why I kept them through camp."

By far the pre-season "sleeper" was big in more ways than one. The 1985 top Draft choice, Craig Wolanin, was one of the largest rookies in the league and the 18-year-old's shot possessed grenade-like explosiveness.

"Whether Craig makes the club or not is uncertain," Carpenter said. "It could take only two weeks; or two months." Then, a pause and a grin: "Or eight years!"

New Jersey's fresh, new NHL product made its debut in Philadelphia against the defending Wales Conference champion Flyers. Down 3-0, Carpenter's crew roared back for a victory with Chevrier making 33 saves.

DEVILS DESTINED FOR THE PLAYOFFS. That was the New York Post headline which supported an enthusiastic review from Hall of Fame reporter Hugh Delano. 

"Don't call Bellevue Hospital for me," defended the newsman. "I'm not a lunatic on the loose. The Devils CAN make the playoffs this season."

Delano had been around the NHL long enough to know that one win did not make the season; especially in October. Still a three-game hat trick of victories propelled optimism to new heights in East Rutherford.

Why not? The kids on whom McNab counted were playing like vets. Muller had established himself as a premier center with John MacLean proving that he was the marksman that Max predicted he would be.

The Kiddie Korps defense raised exultant eyebrows. Wolanin earned a regular berth alongside Ken Daneyko and Joe Cirella. "We were learning on the job," said Dano whose dynamic determination rubbed off on his mates.

No question, the biggest surprise was free agent signee Greg Adams who had been up for a cup of coffee in 1984-85 but now was permanently on the Java Line. Eventually, garrulous Greg would lead the Devils with 35 red lights!

So far, so good; except that storm clouds were gathering over Byrne Arena. The following were the itchy issues:

1. Resch was unhappy about being bumped by Chevrier as Number One goalie. It ultimately would lead to a Chico-Doug rift that coach Carpenter would win.

2. Jan Ludvig, a prize Czech prospect, feuded with Carpenter and wound up being scratched for a number of games.

3. Assistant coach Lou Vairo found himself in Carpenter's doghouse. It would become an irreparable rift, forcing Vairo to vamoose.

No less demoralizing was a blown lead against the Hartford Whalers that led to an overtime loss. If there was one turning point (downward) during the 85-86 season that defeat was it.

"When you let one get away," said a furious Carpenter, "it's tough. And we let this one get away."

Loss piled on loss and by late January the Devils record was a disheartening 14-25-1. Fourth place still could be seen on a telescope but a homestretch 4-1 loss to the Rangers torpedoed any real chance for post-season play.

Meanwhile Chico's feud with Carpenter blazed out of control. At first Resch didn't want to leave New Jersey -- he had remained numero uno on the fan favorite list -- but Doc Mac convinced Glenn to make the move.

Just hours before the March trade deadline Resch got an Amtrak ticket to Philadelphia and became a Flyer. With Carpenter's nemesis out of the picture it was now up to Doug get his guys galloping to the finish line.

And, yes, there were pluses on the non-playoff ledger. The club set franchise records for most points on the road in a season (23), for most wins (28), and most road wins (11). 

For extra added kudos, the Devils amassed the club's longest winning streak at home, four W's, not to mention a score of improved young skaters.

Heading the list was Daneyko who delivered a fascinating mix of brawn, brains plus an occasional offensive thrust good for a few points.

"I can take the odd rush now," said a more confident Ken.

True enough; the likes of Daneyko, Muller and MacLean helped the team move from 20th overall in the league the previous season up to 15th. Not too bad.

One hockey magazine summed up the Devs' season thusly: "There's every reason to believe that the Devils will accumulate more positives than negatives within a year or two."

That was enough to guarantee another season behind the bench for Carpenter. But, as time would tell, Doug was running out of time. Or, as the late, great Devil fan, Yogi Berra,would say about Carpy, "It's getting late, early!"

LISTS: FOUR REASONS WHY THE DEVILS AGAIN FAILED TO REACH THE POST-SEASON:

1. LACK OF LEADERSHIP: Mel Bridgman may have worn the captain's "C," but he didn't have the persevering personality to galvanize his team.

2. INNER TURMOIL: Doug Carpenter's battles with the likes of fan favorite, Chico Resch as well as the coach's aide, Lou Vairo, mangled morale.

3. ABSENCE OF VERBEEK: While Patty eventually survived his near career-threatening injury and re-joined the team, it was too late to help.

4. GREEN WAS NOT RED HOT: As good as the Daneyko, Mullers, Wolanins and MacLeans may have been, they still were far from at their career peaks.

(NEXT WEEK: PIVOTAL '86-'87 -- DO OR DOUGIE!)

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