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SUNDAYS WITH STAN: The Hot Homestretch

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

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

What could be better than a 1987-88 homestretch-playoff-berth race-between the Devils and Rangers?

Not much.

Well, actually, one thing could be better for New Jersey fans, and that would be for the Devils to oust their intensely disliked rival from a playoff berth.

Of course, since the Devils never had gained the post-season before, such glorious thoughts among Garden State fans occasionally were consigned to sleepless nights -- and sweet dreams.

"We knew that eventually, it could happen," said lifelong Devils fan Noam Kogen of Manhattan. "But we dared not believe that it would."

Coach Jim Schoenfeld was not so sure. The playoff crusade -- on which he once had enthusiastically counted -- seemingly had gone dry. They desperately needed a gallon of gas to keep moving

This was more than evident on the night of March 17, 1988 at home against the Quebec Nordiques. The 4-2 defeat had Schoenfield climbing coach's room walls with a mixture of frustration and despair.

Schony: "It's inexcusable. There was too much riding on a game like this for us to fall asleep, To say it's because we're a young team, or we're maturing, is a bunch of crap. These guys are professionals."

Say this for rookie Brendan Shanahan; he was man enough to take blame for a attacking the Visitors' Robert Picard. Shanny's penalty ruined a New Jersey power play.

"I apologize to the team for what I did," said the penitent 19-year-old for his roughing penalty. (Over the years, Shanny would more than compensate for that blunder.)

Apologies were accepted all around the Devils dressing room but there was no apologizing for their contempt for the enemies camped across the Hudson River in Madison Square Garden. 

Alas, the citizens of Blueshirts Country had become angry and concerned now that the Devils had become genuine playoff challengers.

"That's right," said WFAN sports commentator Joe Benigno. "We had come to hate the Devils. Everything about them -- hated 'em"

Rangers fans also felt that way about Lamoriello but in a quieter way. What bothered Rangerville not only Devils success but the manner in which Lou brought a new kind of love to his team. 

Tough love.

Writing in Battle On The Hudson, a history of the Devils-Rangers endless war, author Tim Sullivan pointed a commendable pen at Lamoriello.

Sullivan: "Lou was at the head of the turnaround. He was no-nonsense, all-business. He had a plan -- a mind-set -- to turn this laughing stock into a playoff staple. 

"Under Lou, the Devils would be respected and feared. Players would wear suits everywhere they went. They would be both proud and passionate at all times -- or else!"

In what had become an agent-influencing-players era, the rather severe Dictum According To Lou might have backfired but it did not. 

Rather, players such as home-grown New Jersey-ite Jim Down of Brick Township listened and liked Lamoriello's master sergeant approached to hockey life.

"Lou was and is his own person," Dowd recalled, "He had his ways and it was his way or the highway. For me, it wasn't hard to get used to because it was hockey; and hockey his way.

"You did it -- we all did it -- because if we didn't go along with Lou, we'd be out of work. And who would want to be out of a gig like this? Not me!"

Players who had known many championships knew Lou. Nor were superlatives were not limited to the Devs. In far off Edmonton, Hall of Famer Mark Messier had learned enough about the Devils to say this:

"Lou held everyone accountable in that organization -- and success inevitably would follow."

The first major test for Lamoriello, Inc. would be the 1987-88 homestretch. It was just past mid-March and the his club sat three points behind New York with the Devs loss to Quebec still in mind.

Up next was Washington at Cap Centre, a dismal place for the Schony-led team to visit. After the Capitals scored the first two goals against Burke, the curtain appeared to be coming down on Schony.

Then, the rookie goalie took command, blunting the Visitors best shots while Pat Verbeek tied the game with his second goal midway through the third period.

But the Devils were hardly out of the woods. A pair of penalties appeared to have dropped them into a hopeless hole only to be saved by a pair of unusual suspects.

During the shorthanded situations penalty-killers Doug Brown and Claude Loiselle each scored goals less than a minute apart sending the team back to East Rutherford with a 4-2 decision. 

Plus, the win marked the team's first at Cap Centre. Unfortunately, the arithmetic was less forgiving. After New Jersey routed St.Louis, 8-2, the Devils remained five points behind New York.

Meanwhile, as pages rolled off the March calendar. Burke's workload began taking a toll. Burke needed a rest and with Buffalo next on the schedule, Schoenfeld sat Sean and started Bob Sauve.

Not so fast. The popular Bobby has become rusty after three and a half weeks of inactivity. Suddenly he's being asked to help his mates emerge with at least a point on the road.

Sure enough, little Bobby played the game of his life, holding Buffalo to a 2-2 deadlock over three periods. But the real threat to Sauve and the Devils playoff hopes emerged in overtime.

The Sabres Ken Priestlay sped free on a clean breakaway. (Hockey savants have long compared this to a cobra-mongoose encounter, and I'm not sure whether the snake won.) 

In this case, Sauve sized up his foe with the hockey savvy of a guy who's been around the block. Priestlay was puck-robbed and New Jersey emerged with a much valuable 2-2 tie.

"That save," said one press box viewer, "saved the game for New Jersey and also saved the Devils season."

More than that, it provided Burke with a much-needed rest since the next game pitted Sean -- smacked around by the Blueshirts three weeks earlier -- against the Rangers at the Meadowlands. 

In a purely historical sense, this was New Jersey's biggest game in franchise history. To a man, the Devils knew that a win would put them a catchable three points behind the fourth-place New York.

Nobody knew it at the time, but the fans jamming The Meadowlands Arena could sense that the winner of that game would be the one in the playoffs!

LISTS: FOUR REASONS WHY THE DEVILS HAD A SHOT AT CATCHING THE RANGERS:

1. RESILIENT BURKE: Shaky at first, Sean Burke would show resiliency under pressure. After a bad game, he invariably boomeranged into a winner. That ability continued to hold.

2. ACE PINCH-GOALIE: When Burke seemed too tired to continue, coach Schoenfeld turned to Bob Sauve. It was Bobby's stellar play against Buffalo that gained New Jersey precious point.

3. THE SCHOENFELD EFFECT: After a couple of months behind the Devils bench, Jim Schoenfield had established a winning style. The players liked him and The Redhead was happy with their play.

4. RANGERS-KILLERS: Schony had crafted a few special forwards who became Rangers-defeating role-players. Pat Verbeek led the pack with Pat Conacher emerging rapidly as a key component.

(NEXT WEEK: THE IMPOSSIBLE TOOK A LITTLE LONGER -- CATCHING THE BLUESHIRTS.)

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