As the Devils prepared for Game Six of their 1988 opening-round series with the Islanders, an air of rare excitement pervaded the New Jersey clubhouse.
"We knew we were on to something big," said fireplug forward Pat Conacher who had become an admirable asset since being promoted from Utica. "If we could beat the Islanders -- who knows? -- we might beat anybody."
Conacher symbolized the surging upstarts from East Rutherford. With a three games to two lead over the Patrick Division champion Isles, the Devils were energized by fourth-liners such as peripatetic Pat.
At age 29, he was regarded as a pro's pro; one who had been discarded by the Rangers and, later, dismissed by since-fired Devils coach Doug Carpenter.
"I was brought up the day Doug left," Conacher recalled. "The team was struggling and I wanted to shake things up when I got to New Jersey. I believed that I could help the team turn it around."
He sure did, especially after coach Jim Schoenfeld has placed Patty on what became a super-checking line alongside hustling Claude Loiselle and Doug Brown.
"Schony stressed aggressive penalty-killing with quick shift changes," said Brown. "We wanted to keep oin going and, once and for all, knock out the Islanders."
That would require continued solid defense, fortified by younger backliners such as Joe Cirella who arrived in the Garden State by way of the Colorado Rockies.
"It was quite a thrill to finally be able to know what it feels like to be in the playoffs," Cirella admitted. "Now that we got in and are one win away from the second round, we've got to seal the deal."
Game Six was played on April 14, 1988, and, not surprisingly, the Meadowlands arena was jumping with joy as never before. After all, the hometown skaters were a mere win away from a historic series upset.
"Our confidence never has been higher," glowed Pat Verbeek. "Sometimes 'confidence' is hard to explain but this team has it. We believe in ourselves."
The Islanders felt the opposite. The high command, including coach Terry Simpson and assistant coach Bob Nystrom, could feel the pressure.
"We underestimated the Devils to a certain extent," said Nystrom. "We had a feeling that they would quit but they have not; not by a long shot."
The Devils metamorphosis tickled the media's fancy. With the Rangers out of the picture and the Islanders just hanging by a gossamer string, writers like Newsday columnist Joe Gergen found an underdog story they loved.
Gergen: "The Devils have moved from being a forgotten franchise to the principal characters in a New York hockey drama."
Like his teammates, Devils forward Aaron Broten waxed ecstatic over the vast prairie of playoff coverage extending throughout the Metropolitan area.
"A lot off people are taking notice," Broten said. "All the media attention is on us. If we beat New York we'll get even more ink."
As Schoenfeld had hoped, his skaters came out hard. Rugged checkers like Perry Anderson and Daneyko punished the enemy with hits, teammates riddled goalie Kelly Hrudey in the Visitors' net.
By the third period the crowd cheering was so intense, it almost resulted in a collective case of laryngitis. It now was 6-1 for the home team and if ever a win seemed in the bag, it sure appeared that way as the third period unfolded.
Except nobody got that message to the Islanders. Suddenly, the score changed: from 6-1, to 6-2: then to 6-3, and to 6-4 and, incredibly, 6-5.
Fortunately for New Jersey, the clock finally was on the Devils' side. Only ten seconds remained in the third period and -- better still for New Jersey -- the face-off was deep in New York's end, 180 feet from the home team's net.
There was too little time and too much geography for the Islanders to snatch the tying goal and send the game into overtime. Yet what took place after the face-off strained credulity.
On the puck-drop Pat LaFontaine, snared the rubber and seemed shot from a cannon. He flashed past Devils defenders as if they were auditioning for "The Invisible Man."
Patty now was in the clear; could he actually beat the clock and hurl a final -- tie-making -- shot at Sean Burke?
Breaths were held, time appeared to stop for a rare moment in Stanley Cup history. Yes, there was time and there was a shot.But Burke made the save a second later, the buzzer sounded, ending the hairbreadth finish.
The Devils had triumphed; the place went wild and the opponents shook hands. The crowd unleashed a while cheer as the victors now tramped into their locker room enjoying the most telling moment in the franchise's young history.
Sitting in a corner sopping up the celebration, defenseman Joe Cirella put it best.
"We always have to do it the hard way. We weren't pretty at the end, but we won."
Then, a pause: "Now let's see if we can do it again -- this time, to Washington!"
FOUR REASONS WHY THE DEVILS WON THEIR FIRST PLAYOFF ROUND:
1. ISLANDERS OVERCONFIDENCE: By the time it was too late, the Islanders were toast. "I'm bitterly disappointed," said g.m. Bill Torrey. "We played six mediocre games."
2. DEVILS GROWING CONFIDENCE: As the series grew in length so did the Devils feeling that victory was possible. Game Five proved the point and Game Six wrapped it up.
3. ENERGY OVER LASSITUDE: With no playoff experience behind them, the Devils entered the first round filled with new found energy. By contrast the Islanders appeared jaded.
4. BETTER TEAM WON: While the Isles had such Hall of Famers as Denis Potvin and Bryan Trotter, the Devils boasted more depth right down to the fourth-liners, Loiselle, Conacher, Brown and Anderson. They were the difference.