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SUNDAYS WITH STAN: The Gripping Meadowlands Melodrama

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

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

With New Jersey leading its second playoff series with Washington, there was reason for the Devils to believe that the remainder of the tourney could be a piece of cake. 

A two games to one playoff lead will do that, among other not-too-flimsy factors.

New Jersey's goaltending was sharp, the underrated defense was overcoming the Capitals fleet skaters and the Garden State forwards had more gunners than the critics has imagined.

But Caps defenseman Garry Galley waxed defiant and would buy none of the negative talk emanating from The Nation's Capital.

"Hey, we were down three games to one against Philadelphia," Galley asserted, "and we came out on top. No reason why we can't come back again."

Opportunity knocked for Washington in Game Four at The Meadowlands after defenseman Tom Kurvers had put Schony's skaters ahead with a first-period power-play goal.

The view from the Devils bench looked even brighter after John MacLean's cannonading shot knocked Caps goalie Pete Peeters unconscious. The battered goalie was removed on a stretcher and taken to a hospital.

Coach Bryan Murray's troops were less fazed than they were inspired. Now that Clint Malarchuk was in goal the Caps counterattacked. First Dave Christian tied the score and then Peter Sundstrom put the Visitors ahead to stay.

The Devils only mounted 14 shots on goal and only one crossed the red goal line. It wasn't a case of doom and gloom in the New Jersey dressing room but rather a sense this was "Devils Hockey." In a jam and, eventually out of a jam. 

"Let's face it," philosophized Mark Johnson, who starred for Herb Brooks' 1980 Gold Medal Olympians, "we play our best when we have our biggest challenge. Just like that Olympic team, we're underdogs and can win."

One thing that Schoenfeld had going for him was the fact that all this post-season stuff was new to him and his employees. By contrast, the Caps general manager David Poile knew that his guys had a rep for blowing playoffs.

Poile, with a smile on his face: "One of our Washington papers had this line about us: 'If the Capitals were Indians, Custer would still be alive.' I had to admit that it was a good line."

It took just a half-a-day for Schoenfeld to top that line. Except the Devils skipper wasn't kidding when he announced a strategic move for all to hear: "Bob Sauve is replacing Sean Burke in our goal tonight."

Granted that the all-of-a-sudden Burke-to-Sauve rotation had worked in the past but did that ploy still have legs? That was the query going around the media room at Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland.

To a man, the Devils were less excited about the Stand-By taking center stage than the press corps. Sauve already had 30 playoff games under his belt. They didn't call him "Old Reliable" for nothing.

Calm as a crocodile in the swim, Bob nursed a 2-0 shutout through more than two-and-a-half periods before being beaten. Nor did the 2-1 count disrupt his focus. 

A cushion goal was needed and Captain Kirk Muller eased the pressure by dismaying the crowd with his second red light of the night. The final score, 3-1, put New Jersey a mere win away from The Final Four.

This extraordinary state of affairs turned the Devils into NHL darlings; likable upstarts playing the game hard but clean. That Schony tossed some ginger into the recipe by utilizing Sauve made the winning all the tastier.

Schoenfeld: "I used Bobby for a reason. Sean responds to a heavy workload. But Bob has supported us with the ability to rest Sean and count on Bobby when we give him a game.

"I have complete confidence when I have Bobby; he's remarkable. Not many goalies can play infrequently and then come in and stand on his ear like he does."

Of course, now the pundits had to go back to their Ouija Boards and figure out whether Schony would go with a winning Sauve in Game Six. Playing the guessing game, the Devils mentor would not tell until game time. It was Burke.

It also was a mistake; a five-goal error.

After two very one-sided periods of play, Burke had allowed five goals. Were Sean a baseball pitcher, he'd have been sent to the showers. This time, he merely sat out the third period on the bench.

The final score was 7-2 for the Capitals. And if that spanking wasn't hurtful enough, the climactic Game Seven would be played on the Caps home ice.

As for the brainstorming, it reached stratospheric proportions as players, fans and, of course The Fourth Estate occupying the Press Room spent the next days debating: "To Burke Or Not To Burke -- That is the question?"

No one had the answer but this much was certain: For the first time in Devils history the team would be confronted with the extraordinary pressure of a playoff Game Seven. Winner take all.

Could the Devils be heroes in yet another Meadowlands Melodrama?

Stay tuned!

LISTS: FOUR SURPRISES THAT HAS KEPT THE DEVILS ALIVE DOWN TO GAME 7

1. THE SAUVE EFFECT: As he demonstrated in the home stretch and in the islanders series, the little goaltender has proven to be a "Bobby On The Spot."

Cool, confident, he wins the biggies.

2. CONFIDENCE: Despite setbacks, the overall mood among the Garden Staters has been the confidence in their ability to rebound from stunning losses. "We Did It Before And We Can Do It Again!" was their motto.

3. COACHING: As he demonstrated in the homestretch and first playoff round, Schoenfeld remained confident in his convictions -- even when they backfired as in Game Six in New Jersey.

4. UNDERDOGS: At the start of the season few -- if any, -- prognosticators would have picked New Jersey to make the playoffs, let along make it to the second playoff round. Being "spoilers" fit their brand to a T.

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