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SUNDAYS WITH STAN: Schony Lights a Fire

Stan Fischler writes about the history of the Devils franchise in his weekly column

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

Jim Schoenfeld looked at the calendar and then the newspapers. 

The fiery redhead had just been hired by general manager Lou Lamoriello to coach the New Jersey Devils and now he had two months to get them into the playoffs.

Video: MATT AND THE MAVEN | Stanta Claus

Lou virtually guaranteed that the Garden State skaters would make the post-season for the first time and Schoenfeld had to make good on the promise.

Reading the papers solidified Gentleman Jim's confidence. The New York Post's Hugh Delano, noted for his hard-nosed journalistic approach, gave the new mentor a thumbs-up.

"Hiring Schoenfeld could be a good move," wrote Delano. "If he can awaken the dozing Devils, he could put them in the playoffs."

Players, who seemed to have tuned out the outgoing Doug Carpenter, seconded Delano's motion. Kirk Muller liked the change.

"We needed something to get us going," said Muller. "We needed a fresh atmosphere. No one will be complacent now."

Complacency was out of the question. The Devils were in fifth place just five points ahead of the last-place Rangers who had a game in hand.

As Muller indicated, the change had a salutary effect on the skaters. As a gift to Jim -- in his debut on January 28, 1988, at The Meadowlands -- they beat the Penguins.

Two more victories followed and by the end of January, the Devils found themselves in a third-place tie with the Islanders.

The Schoenfeld Effect was easy on the eyes. Fans delighted in the team's newfound hustle. Media types compared the energy to the kind Jim produced as a bruising Buffalo Sabres defenseman.

Schoenfeld: "I coach the way I played. I expect honesty and desire from players."

The bench boss had a way cool style that particularly enthused stick handlers on the young side. One was big, burly defenseman Craig Wolanin.

"Jim says we can lift the level of our improvement," Wolanin observed. "He said, 'Let's make the playoffs.' So, we've started working toward that goal."

Players such as defenseman Randy Velischek, who had been in Carpenter's doghouse, were given new lives. Backliner Joe Cirella -- overworked by Doug -- had his workload reduced and played better.

Goaltending was adequate without being superior. Alain Chevrier and Bob Sauve played capably enough but, in the end, that would not be enough to clear a playoff berth.

In front of the duo was good news and bad news. By far the worst was that Jim Korn, the most intimidating player on the squad, was out with an injured shoulder

The good news was that clever Claude Loiselle teamed with hustling Doug Brown gave New Jersey one of the NHL's best penalty-killing combinations.

Competition for a playoff berth remained keen. Just about everyone understood that beating out the rival Rangers was paramount in the coach's game plan.

"I'm not the one who's going to turn it around," said Schoenfeld, "it'll be the players who turn it around."

The Turn-It-Around Gang included the forechecking forward with the Boston accent, Andy Brickley. His two-goal game against Montreal led some to suggest that Brickley was the NHL's best fourth-liner.

Meanwhile, Lamoriello realized what few others did; that he had an ace-in-the hole finishing his stint with Team Canada at Calgary in the Winter Olympics.

Sean Burke was the Canadian Olympic team puck-stopper and was ready to be imported to East Rutherford should Schony need goaltending help behind Sauve and Chevrier.

He did.

After two periods of sieve-like play against Washington, Chevrier was pulled and replaced by Burke. The Devils lost the game while Burke, disappointingly, had failed to impress in his relief role. 

"I know that a lot of people are expecting big things from me,"

 Burke asserted after his unsatisfying effort. "I'm not putting extra pressure on myself; I just want to help get this team into the playoffs."

Gambling on Burke in the pressure-cooker that was Boston Garden, Schony was more impressed with Brickley who enjoyed another two-goal game that included the winner in a 7-6 decision.

Schoenfeld: "This was a monumental win for us. A lot of times in the past this team would have quit but this time we just hung in there and kept battling. The way we won makes me really happy."

Burke was tickled too because he saw a fighting team in front of him. In addition to Jim Korn, Lamoriello had added large, energetic David Maley to the lineup. 

Flexing his muscles against the Big, Bad Bruins, Maley pummeled Boston's Lyndon Byers early in the game. To a man, the Devils insisted that the bout energized the club when it was down 3-1.

As for Burke, the coach decided to run with him in the hopes that Sean could find a winning groove with a lowered goals-against average.

The coach started Burke against the Flyers in Philadelphia and Sean returned the favor with a sterling 4-2 triumph. Nor was he rattled when the opening Philly goal caromed in off his defenseman's skate.

The two-pointer set a club record with its 30th W and New Jersey's 65th point also was a new mark in franchise history. 

As an added fillip, the Devs win gave them a one-point lead over the Rangers and sole possession of fourth place. But the advantage was deceptive; a couple of losses later, reality was restored.

It was, after all, going to be one heck of a race to the Finish Line; and, who knows, it could go down to the final night of the season.   

"Burke will decide whether they make it or not," stated one press box regular.

This much was certain; Schoenfeld never wavered in support of his rookie starter between the pipes. His faith in the youngster would prove to be well-founded well into the homestretch.

LISTS: FOUR REASONS HOW JIM SCHOENFELD REVIVED THE DEVILS:

* NEW FACE, FRESH FEELINGS: Doug Carpenter's message had gone stale. A revival was in order and the very fresh Schony had the answer with ready smile and wise words to the troops.

* UNDERDOGS COME THROUGH: Third and fourth-liners such as Claude Loiselle, Doug Brown and Andy Brickley played a 200-foot, two-way game. Each made a difference, especially on the penalty kill.

* BURKE TO THE RESCUE: As Alain Chevrier's game began to betray cracks, the 1988 Winter Olympics had ended. After starring for Team Canada, Sean Burke arrived in East Rutherford just in time.

* LOU ON THE MOVE: Wherever he could, Lou Lamoriello wheeled and dealed to improve the team while simultaneously beefing it up. Exhibits A and B were the twin toughies, David Maley and Jim Korn.

(NEXT WEEK: THE MIRACLE STRETCH RUN)

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