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Maven's Memories: Au Revoir Captain Denis, Au Revoir, Isles

Stan Fischler recalls the Isles 1978-88 First Round Loss to New Jersey.

by Stan Fischler StanFischler /

There's nothing more thrilling than a rousing run down the NHL homestretch and then crossing the finish line as a winner.

That's precisely what the Islanders could write in their 1987-88 diary. They did it.

Challenged both by the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers in the closing month of the season, the Isles prevailed with an exclamation point!

First place for coach Terry Simpson's crew had his players so giddy, they had visions of making more miracles in the post-season. Why not a run to the Stanley Cup Final?

"My expectations are the limit," said peripatetic Randy Wood one of the hard-shooting go-getters. "I don't see why we can't go until June 1."

Well, the New Jersey Devils would have something to say about that.

Led by effervescent coach Jim Schoenfeld, the Garden State skaters had become the talk of the league after their own unique finish. On the final night of the regular campaign, they bumped the Blueshirts right out of contention.

Then again, having finished with 82 points, the surging Devils wound up only six points behind the Islanders at the end of the 80-game slate. If nothing else, the Devils had upset on their minds.

Easily New Jersey's foremost upset-maker was 1988 Canadian Olympic hero Sean Burke. The husky goalie -- he joined the Devils after the Winter Games ended in Calgary -- finished the season with a 10-1-0 record.

"Once we got to the playoffs, we felt we could beat the Islanders," said defenseman Craig Wolanin. "Schony gave us that kind of confidence and Burkie had been super in goal."

The fact that Terry Simpson boasted such stars as future Hall of Famers Denis Potvin and Bryan Trottier; not to mention up; and coming aces like Pat LaFontaine, Patrick Flatley and Brent Sutter, left the Devils unfazed.

"There was only one problem with the Islanders," a New York reporter noted, "and that is, they're not bargaining for the Devils spirit."

Now it was up to settle the New York-New Jersey battle on the ice. The best-of-seven series began in Uniondale and all seemed normal about the final score, 4-3, Islanders.

After blowing a 3-1 lead, the Nassaumen held on at 3-3 and then captured Game One on at 6:11 of the sudden death period when LaFontaine beat Burke.

On the one hand, Patty was tickled pink with the result but on the other hand -- blemished with bruises -- he had cause for concern. 

"New Jersey is playing it tough," the gifted young center allowed. "They sure like to hit."

The Devils also were full of surprises. While everyone and his and her pet bow-wis figured that Burke would be back in goal for Game Two --  Uh-Uh! -- it wasn't going to happen.

The crafty Schoenfeld stunned just about everyone by benching Burke for Game Two at Nassau. Instead, he thrust tiny veteran Bob Sauve between the pipes, hoping to put still more pizazz into his already-pumped stickhandlers.

In the Coliseum press box the buzz was that Schony was acting out of desperation; perhaps panic. The Isles knew better.

"This guy, Sauve has been around," warned Simpson. "We can't take anything for granted."

On that count he was right; and after the last ice shavings were removed following Game Two, the Visitors left for the Lincoln Tunnel more than satisfied with their 3-2 margin of victory. Sauve proved to be the savior.

So, the interstate series was tied at one; no big deal for the Nassaumen who were accustomed to all this. By contrast, Schoenfeld's men never had been in a playoff before. Trouble is, they now were playing like champs.

For Game Three, Burke was re-installed by Schoenfeld for the first-ever NHL playoff game at The Meadowlands and Sean made the sellout crowd happy with save after save after save.

Meanwhile, Kelly Hrudey was riddled with three goals and New Jersey now led the series two games to one having supported Burke with a 3-0 triumph.

If that wasn't a stunner enough for Simpson, his skaters fell behind 3-0 in Game Four on April 10, 1988. The Islanders general staff -- especially the coach -- had to make a decision.

Should he or shouldn't Terry give Hrudey the hook and replace him with playoff-hardened-and-succesful Bill Smith?

That was the press box question late in the middle period and Simpson answered it by staying with Kelly. With just 71 seconds remaining in the second frame Alan Kerr put the Isles on the scoreboard.

Still, it was 3-1 for New Jersey with more than half of the third period gone when the Isles struck again. This time it was the soon-to-be-captain Brent Sutter who inspired his club and guess what?

The third period ended with the teams tied 4-4. Once the first overtime session began you'd have thought the Islanders had a collective case of brain lock. Not one, not two but three penalties were whistled against them.

Surely, the Law of Averages dictated that, sooner or later, a special team's goal would be scored; and it was; but not the way anyone could have imagined.

Brent Sutter did it again. Out on the penalty-kill, Sutter caught the Devils out shopping and beat Burke for only the second shorthanded goal in Stanley Cup history.

"Disheartening!" That's how Schoenfeld reacted to the startling turn of events. "As far as we're concerned this series is even, just like it was a week ago."

The series had reached a turning point and everyone knew it; especially captain Denis Potvin who would retire at the end of the playoffs. 

"We're in a good position to move ahead," the super-defender said, "but these Devils aren't making it easy for us; that's for sure."

Game Five was at the Coliseum and by the late stages of the second period, a pall had enveloped The Old Barn. The Devils not only had gone ahead but they were outhitting and out-hustling the Nassaumen.

New Jersey not only won the game 4-2 but Burke clearly out-goaled Hrudey. Once again, the Islanders found themselves on the ropes and once again, they scraped the bottom of the Comeback Barrel for splinters of hope.

What loomed as the series-clincher drew another standing room only crowd to East Rutherford. The audience would be stunned to the very core by another remarkable comeback -- but by which combatant?

This much was certain; the Devils were winning the war of attrition and no single episode depicted this trend than a seemingly routine collision. Only it wasn't routine, it was symbolic with a Capital S. 

Video: Denis Potvin was captain of Islanders' 1980s dynasty

When the puck skimmed into the Islanders zone Denis Potvin routinely went to corral it while rambunctious New Jersey forward Perry Anderson put the captain in his crosshairs. 

Denis was smashed into the end boards and collapsed to the ice from the blow.

As the captain pulled himself together and returned to the play, a telling remark was heard along press row. "That will hasten Denis' retirement."

As for the Captain's team, the Isles, too, seemed ready to retire from the series. They trailed New Jersey 6-1 in the third period. It all seemed so over; finis.

And then it happened; 

It was if the Islanders bench rose at once to a chorus of, "NOT YET, MY GOOD FRIENDS!"

Suddenly the score was 6-2; then 6-3. All the while, the clock wound down toward the end, "NOT YET!"

Now it's 6-4 but apparently too late. Wait! They made it 6-5. 

In what onlookers considered a scene they'd never forget, a face-off was held deep in the Islanders zone. Simpson couldn't pull Hrudey so it was five-on-five when the teams lined up with ten seconds remaining in the third period.

The situation was so obviously against any further Islanders thrusts that media members got out of their seats and began heading down toward the dressing room. 

What happened next has to be Exhibit A in any "Never Say Die" tale about hockey comebacks. 

The puck was dropped and, somehow, LaFontaine gained control of the rubber. Like a gridder zig-zagging through openings in a downfield sprint, Patty was beating his defenders and simultaneously racing against the clock.

With perhaps two seconds remaining, LaFontaine was in the clear, saw his target behind Burke and fired his potential tying missile.

In the broadcast booth could be heard; a final call "...AND HE MAKES THE SAVE!"

For Captain Potvin and Company, it was over, all over: 6-5 for the Devils. The Islanders had been defeated four games to two. Minutes later in the Islanders dressing room, the post mortems flowed like wine.

"We underestimated them to a certain extent," explained Islanders assistant coach Bob Nystrom. "We had the feeling that they would quit, but obviously they didn't go that route,"

Having picked up the pieces, studied all the tapes, the Islanders general staff led by Bill Torrey had to find the route to redemption.

It would be a busy summer of 1988 for Bowtie Bill!

Video: Thank You Stan Fischler


1. GOALTENDING: The Devils combo of Sean Burke and -- for one key game -- Bob Sauve proved just a bit better than what Kelly Hrudey had to offer.

2. ATTRITION: Veterans such as Potvin, Trottier and Ken Morrow had become worn down after so many years of playoff hockey.

3. MOTIVATION: Jim Schoenfeld's Devils never had made the playoffs before. This was something new, exciting and a challenge that had them pumped more than Terry Simpson's sextet.

4. PHYSICAL PLAY: New Jersey's game plan was to hit and hit and hit some more; especially with Pat LaFontaine the special target. When it was over, Patty privately confided that his Isles didn't have enough physicality to combat the poundings doled out by Ken Daneyko and Dave Maley, among the bigger hitters dispatched by Schony.

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