Despite New Jersey's 1988 first-round playoff victory over the New York Islanders, a corps of doubters still jumped all over Jim Schoenfeld's team.
The Devils "got lucky" was one theme.
"Can't happen again" was another.
it would not take very long for New Jersey critics to get their answers. Ready willing and quite able, the Garden State skaters now were being challenged by the Washington Capitals.
The Patrick Division Final playoff between the Capitals and Devils had a fascination all its own.
On the Washington side, D.C. fans were waxing joyful after their Caps had knocked off Philadelphia in their opening-round tournament. Fueled by Devils naysayers, those in the Capital District expected a victory.
The arithmetic certainly favored Washington. Except for a late-season 4-2 triumph, the Devils had a depressing 0-19-1 record at Capital Centre through the 1987-88 campaign.
"It won't bother us," assured Devils sharpshooter John MacLean. "We had a 1-19-1 record at Nassau Coliseum before we opened our playoff with the Islanders. But we beat them two out of three there."
Opposing Schoenfeld on the Caps bench was the veteran mentor Bryan Murray. Volatile, voluble and rarely a friend of the on-ice officials, Bryan was savvy enough not to take the Devils for granted.
"I predict that the series will go at least six games, maybe seven," Murray opined. "Our teams are similar in many ways. We're two teams that work hard and are very competitive."
If Game One was a portent of things to come, it didn't make the citizens of Devils Country feel a whole lot of confidence. By the end of the second period it was 3-0 for the hosts in a game that ended as a one-sided Caps 3-1 win.
"The Devils intensity fell," commented The New York Times.
New Jersey defenseman Tom Kurvers had a different view: "We weren't finishing well."
In a sense, Kurvers was proven wrong. His teammate Pat Verbeek "finished well," when one considers the manner in which he ran down Caps defenseman Rod Langway late in the third period.
At game's end Langway had to be escorted from the arena on crutches. Murray
immediately charged that Verbeek's collision actually was a deliberate attempt to injure Washington's best defender.
Now a war was on and the media ate it up: was Verbeek hellbent to illegally take out Langway; or was it a "hockey play," more accidental than anything?
Verbeek: "I wasn't trying to injure him. I'm not that kind of player."
Sorry, but the Caps would have none of Pat's defense. When the Washington players learned that Langway would be lost for the entire series, the term "grudge tourney" entered the conversation. It continued in Game Two.
One by one the home club began punishing the Jerseyites but the equally physical Devils hardly were ready to take it. But they were more enthused about pushing the red light button, especially Aaron Broten.
Broten's three-goal hat trick highlighted a 7-4 New Jersey counterattack that tied the series at one win apiece. The score for Bruises Handed Out was a lot higher.
Caps heavyweight Ed Kastelic went after Claude Loiselle while Perry Anderson traded punches with Greg Smith. As an extra added attraction Washington's' Yvon Corriveau challenged Tom Kurvers.
The Pier Six brawl was good for 70 penalty minutes after Kastelic skated over to Anderson and began punching him from behind.
Black-and-blue though they might have been, Schony's brawlers hardly were intimidated. "We like rough games," Verbeek snarled. "They get us more involved, more excited. You could see, we don't get fazed at all."
But the Caps were fazed. Desperate over the loss of Langway, Washington's high command sent tapes of the Verbeek-Langway collision to NHL Executive Vice President Brian O'Neill.
Caps general manager David Poile hoped that -- after further review -- ONeill would suspend Verbeek for putting Langway out of the playoffs. Court was in session and, in a relatively short time, the verdict was made public.
Nice try, Dave, but it didn't work for his Caps.
O'Neill: "In my judgment, it requires no further action by the league. It was just an unfortunate accident."
With the war of words taking a breather, the teams renewed hostilities on April 22, 1988, at the Meadowlands. Galvanized by the home crowd, Schony's skaters proved indomitable; but none more than Patrik Sundstrom.
Credited with an unprecedented eight-point performance, the Slick Swede was so good that reporters practically overlooked the fact that Mark Johnson tallied four goals.
But the taciturn Sundstrom had to speak up on his night; a three-goal hat trick and five assists will do that; along with the 10-4 verdict in favor of the Garden Staters.
Incredibly, Sundstrom broke the playoff record of seven points, set three times by none other than Wayne Gretzky. Among others, Johnson thought Sundstrom's feat was quite humorous when you compared it to the NFL.
Johnson: "Eight points; that's a touchdown and a two-point conversion. Gretzky never had a night like this."
Nor had the Capitals and now they had to figure out a way to detour the New Jersey steamroller, It would not be easy.
The fear in the Nation's Capital was that the New Jersey Express was speeding toward a second series victory.
Well, was it?
LISTS: FOUR SURPRISES THAT PUT NEW JERSEY AHEAD OF WASHINGTON IN THE SERIES;
1. PATRIK SUNDSTROM: Although the Swede was considered a solid scorer no one expected him to break Gretzky's playoff record.
2. TOUGHNESS: Granted, Washington boasted some big boys -- Kevin Hatcher among others -- the Devils were able to match check for check and punch for punch.
3. BALANCED SCORING: It was more than Sundstrom. The likes of John MacLean, Kirk Muller and Mark Johnson were proving too much for the Caps to handle.
4. CALM COACHING: While Bryan Murray fussed and fumed behind the Washington bench, Jim Schoenfeld kept his cool and out-coached his opponent in two out of the first three games.
(NEXT WEEK; TAKING THE CAPS TO A CLIMACTIC GAME SEVEN)