(As the NHL’s 100th anniversary draws near, I’ll be posting about random great moments in league history. Most of them have either been overlooked or forgotten, or otherwise downplayed.)
The NHL expanded to Kansas City in 1974, bringing a largely forgettable team called the Scouts into the fold. They would go 15-54-11 in their first year of existence, which was the best record that they would have in two seasons in KC. Hemorrhaging money, the team packed up and moved west to Denver for the 1976-77 season to become the Colorado Rockies.
The fortunes of the team did not improve, although they would make the playoffs in 1977-78 by virtue of playing in a ghastly Smythe Division. (I define “ghastly” as a division where a team that has 19 wins, and more ties than wins, finishes 2nd. Like what Colorado did.) They were bounced in two games in a best-of-three series against Philadelphia, and that’s as close as the Rockies would ever get to contending.
The Rockies moved to New Jersey in 1982, and began play in 1982-83 as the New Jersey Devils. And they were still terrible.
On November 19, 1983, with the Devils well on the way to a 17-56-7 record, Edmonton came to town. Wayne Gretzky would produce the first eight-point night of his incomparable career, Jari Kurri would score five goals, and the Oilers would win 13-4. After the game, Gretzky uttered probably the most unkind thing that he ever said:
“It got to the point where it wasn’t even funny…How long has it been for them? Three years? Five? Seven? Probably closer to nine. Well, it’s about time they got their act together. They’re ruining the whole league. They better stop running a Mickey Mouse organization and put somebody on the ice. I feel damn sorry for (goalies) Ron Low and Chico Resch.”
New Jersey would finish 39 games under .500 that year, good for 20th out of the league’s 21 teams. They were just three points ahead of Pittsburgh, who spent the last half of the season openly trying to lose games in order to be able to draft junior phenom Mario Lemieux. New Jersey wasn’t winning either, mostly because the team was bad.
In their first ten years of existence, the Scouts/Rockies/Devils played 800 games, posting an aggregate 174-496-130 record, a .29875 point percentage. That’s a 48-point average in an 80-game season.
Doug Carpenter was hired as coach for the 1984-85 season, and the Devils tied a team record with 22 wins that year. In 1985-86, they surged to 28 wins, and their 59 points tied a team record. And then in 1986-87, they made it all the way to 29 wins and 64 points. Being just 16 games under .500 proved that these were indeed heady times for the Devils. Perhaps they might someday be in the playoff race as late as February, a dizzying thought indeed.
1987-88 began, and it looked like things might be different in New Jersey. A win against Gretzky’s Oilers early on put the Devils’ record after ten games at 7-3-0. Then a 5-3-2 record in the next ten put the Devils at 12-6-2 at the quarter-season mark. A four-game losing streak in December hurt, but at the halfway mark the Devils were 18-17-5 and still very much in the thick of a playoff race.
Then things started to come apart. The ensuing ten-game stretch saw the Devils go just 3-7-0, dropping them to just three points clear of the Rangers. Carpenter was fired and replaced by Jim Schoenfeld, and a three-game winning streak put the Devils back to .500. This was followed by a three-game losing streak, then alternating wins and losses. At the 60-game mark, three-quarters of the way through the season, New Jersey was 26-29-5. New York was 24-28-8, just one point back.
Try as they might, New Jersey could not shake the Rangers; they simply weren’t good enough. And the seasoned Rangers were just getting hot. By March 19, everything had flipped. The Rangers defeated Toronto, pushing them to a 32-32-8 record (72 points) compared to the Devils’ 31-36-5 (67 points). Each team had eight games left, and the Rangers were five points clear of the Devils. Pittsburgh was 31-32-9 (71 points), but had just ripped off a 6-3-0 stretch and looked to be heating up in a big way. New Jersey had already set team records for wins and points, but it was clear the playoff run was going to come up short.
The one saving grace for the Devils was that their last eight games would include two against Pittsburgh and one against the Rangers. Wins would help doubly, and a single loss could be a killer.
Three teams, eight games left for each, one playoff spot.
March 20 saw all three teams in action. New Jersey defeated Washington by a 4-2 score, New York beat Hartford 2-1, and Pittsburgh lost 4-2 against Philadelphia. After 73 games, New York had 74 points, Pittsburgh 71, and New Jersey 69.
March 22 would see the Rangers drop a 3-2 game against Buffalo. Pittsburgh beat Washington 7-3 a day later, and both New York and New Jersey won their respective games on the 24th. Then on the 25th, Pittsburgh beat Montreal while New Jersey managed only a tie against Buffalo.
75 games in, 5 to go. New York had 76 points, Pittsburgh 75, and New Jersey 72. Pittsburgh and New York would not play each other, while New Jersey had those three games against the two opponents in the final five games.
On March 26, New York tied Detroit, pushing them to 77 points.
On March 27, Pittsburgh beat Quebec 6-3 while the Devils and Rangers faced off. A Rangers win would give them a nearly insurmountable lead: a seven-point lead on the Devils with just four games left to play.
The New York Rangers are now chasing the two teams that were behind them Sunday morning in the Patrick Division of the National Hockey League.
The New Jersey Devils, playing the most important game in the history of their franchise, dumped the Rangers into an unenviable position Sunday afternoon with a convincing 7-2 victory at the Meadowlands.
It was the game in which the Devils were expected to choke and fall completely out of the picture, and the game in which the Rangers maintained their breathing room over Pittsburgh.
Instead, the Devils grabbed the Rangers by the throats early, and as Pittsburgh won its third game in a row at Quebec, the Rangers slipped back into fifth place.
The Devils are still three points behind the Rangers, but perhaps in a better position because of a home-and-home series with the Penguins Tuesday and Thursday. Both New Jersey and Pittsburgh have four games remaining; the Rangers have three.
All three teams have 34 victories, which is the No. 1 tiebreaker if two or more teams wind up with the same point totals. Pittsburgh would win out in the second tiebreaker with the Rangers, having won the season series 3-2-2.
“This wasn’t a big game,” said the Devils’ Pat Verbeek. “This was huge … enormous. It’s going to come down to which team has the biggest heart and gets the biggest breaks.”
Carpinello, Rick. “The New York Rangers are now chasing the two teams that were behind them Sunday morning in the Patrick Division of the National Hockey League..” USA TODAY. 28 Mar. 1988
After that night, New York had 77 points, Pittsburgh 77, and New Jersey 74.
Four games to go.
One night later, Pittsburgh and New Jersey would play the first of their two-game set. The first period was a brutally physical affair, but no one managed to score. The second period saw Tom Kurvers break the scoreless tie, and Pat Verbeek and Claude Loiselle added goals to make it 3-0 New Jersey after two. Kirk Muller would seal it barely a minute into the third, and the Devils’ 4-0 win drew them to within one point of both the Rangers and Penguins. This also gave them the first tiebreaker, but it would not come into play unless they could actually catch up in points.
Three games to go.
The Rangers went to Chicago and scrapped out a 4-3 win, giving them 79 points. The next night would see the Devils and Penguins play their second game. New Jersey led 1-0 after one, but two quick Pittsburgh goals in the second period made it 2-1. Aaron Broten tied it at the halfway point, and John MacLean gave New Jersey a 3-2 lead right before the end of the second. Faced with the most important period of hockey in franchise history, New Jersey stormed out and potted four goals to take a 7-2 win.
Two games to go. New York had 79 points, New Jersey 78, Pittsburgh 77.
The Rangers’ 79th game was in Winnipeg, and it looked at first like they’d left their game behind in Chicago as the Jets surged to a 3-0 first-period lead. John Ogrodnick would make it 3-1 before the first period ended, and by the end of the second period it was tied 4-4. The Rangers would lead 6-5 late, but Paul MacLean tied it for Winnipeg. New York had 80 points with one game left for them to play.
One night later, both New Jersey and Pittsburgh would win their respective games.
The New Jersey Devils Saturday moved within a victory of the franchise’s first playoff appearance in a decade.
Kirk Muller scored a goal and two assists to help the New Jersey Devils move into fourth place in the Patrick Division with a 5-2 victory over the New York Islanders.
The Devils can clinch a playoff berth with a victory in Chicago Sunday night. As the Colorado Rockies, the team lost two out of three to Philadelphia in the first round of the 1978 playoffs.
‘This is the first time we’ve had our destiny in our own hands,’ Devils Coach Jim Schoenfeld said. ‘We have to play in Chicago. That’s all there is to it.’
With one game left, the Devils and New York Rangers each have 80 points in the battle for the Patrick’s final playoff spot. Total victories are the first tie-breaker, and the Devils have two more than the Rangers.
– UPI NewsTrack 2 Apr. 1988
One day left. One game left. New York had 80 points, New Jersey had 80 points, and Pittsburgh had 79 points. New Jersey was in with a win, New York would get in with one more point than New Jersey, and Pittsburgh needed both a win and losses by both other teams.
April 3, 1988 dawned. All three teams in action.
New York played Quebec early in the afternoon, and their three third-period goals meant that the Rangers finished the regular season with 82 points, eliminating Pittsburgh and forcing the Devils into a must-win situation. Only a win would do; a tie or loss would put the Rangers into the playoffs.
Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, Dan Quinn scored his 40th goal and Mario Lemieux his 70th as the Penguins defeated Hartford 4-2. But the Rangers’ win had already the Penguins out.
As the Rangers players assembled to watch their rivals on TV, New Jersey sent out rookie goalie Sean Burke, who had a 9-1-0 record since arriving in the NHL in early March. Chicago countered with their own rookie goalie, Darren Pang, who would finish 3rd in voting for the Calder Trophy (behind 51-goal scorer Joe Nieuwendyk and 38-goal scorer Ray Sheppard).
A win would put New Jersey into the playoffs for the first time. And perhaps just as important, it would also give them a five-game winning streak for the first time in the 14-year history of the franchise.
Devils goalie Burke and Blackhawks goalie Pang were perfect through one period of play. Then, with 9 minutes to go in the second period, Devils’ defenseman Ken Danyeko unleashed a rocket of a shot that beat Pang, and the Devils took a 1-0 lead. Chicago would strike back two minutes later, as Denis Savard put his 44th goal of the year past Burke. Barely 30 seconds later, Dirk Graham would give Chicago a 2-1 lead.
Down 2-1 with time ticking down in the second period, Aaron Broten put the Devils in a tough spot by taking a tripping penalty. But New Jersey killed off the power play, then got a break when Chicago defenseman Bob McGill was sent off for hooking.
On that power play, Bruce Driver feathered a pass to Craig Wolanin, who one-timed a hard shot that Pang stopped with his right pad. But Pang directed the rebound off to his right…
“Wolanin the shot, save made, rebound SCORE! Patty Verbeek, power play goal at 19:52!”
- Devils announcer Gary Thorne on the original broadcast
Verbeek had managed to sidestep Al Secord, and simply slammed home the rebound as it came off of Pang’s pads.
2-2 after two.
The teams traded abbreviated power plays early in the third period with no score. Then, with a little over 10 minutes left, Blackhawks forward Troy Murray scored on a breakaway to take a 3-2 lead.
The Devils had already been forced to juggle lines and shorten the bench; Claude Loiselle had gone down early, and then defenseman Tom Kurvers joined him in the second period. The frenzied streak, plus the injuries, plus trying to tie up and then win a game against a brutally tough and skilled Blackhawks teams, looked to be crashing down all at once.
Instead, one of the two remaining lines had other ideas. Patrik Sundstrom was hit along the boards in the neutral zone by Dave Manson, but managed to poke the puck ahead to Mark Johnson. Johnson carried it into the faceoff circle, aimed five hole on Pang…
“…Mark Johnson in, Johnson the shot, save Pang, rebound, SCORE! Johnny MacLean puts it in and he’s tied the game up at 3-3 as Darren Pang could not hang on to the rebound.”
- Devils announcer Gary Thorne on the original broadcast
MacLean’s goal practically mirrored Verbeek’s: a hard shot that Pang stopped with his right pad but kicked off to his right, where a waiting Devil hammered the rebound in.
The game was tied, but a tie would do the Devils no good. They applied relentless pressure, leaving the rookie goalie Burke on an island. In the final two minutes of regulation, Burke would make three outstanding saves, with one coming on a two-on-one and one coming on a breakaway with less than 30 seconds to go.
Overtime. Five minutes to decide the playoff race.
The Devils continued to apply pressure, looking to convert any small break into the goal that would clinch the playoffs. And they needed Burke to continue to stand on his head, which he did early in overtime when he stopped Dirk Graham on a breakaway.
Two minutes into overtime, MacLean gathered the puck near his own blueline and backhanded it up the boards to Sundstrom. Sundstrom took a similar path as Johnson, taking a shot from the faceoff circle, but defenseman Bob Murray blocked it off to the corner. As the puck bounced around, a Blackhawk corralled it but could not clear the zone thanks to MacLean, who had arrived in the offensive zone. The puck ended up on the stick of Sundstrom, who spotted defenseman Joe Cirella at the far point. Sundstrom made a perfect pass onto the stick of Cirella, who spotted open ice ahead.
MacLean, the left wing on this line, now vacated his spot up near the blue line and drifted toward the near faceoff circle.
Cirella charged ahead, fighting through a hook by Murray, and managed to get off a shot…
“Cirella got in, Cirella takes a shot, save made by Pang, rebound SCORE! THEY DID IT! THEY DID IT! THE DEVILS MAKE THE PLAYOFFS FOR THE FIRST TIME IN THEIR HISTORY! John MacLean the overtime goal, and they win it 4 to 3!”
- Devils announcer Gary Thorne on the original broadcast
Chicago hadn’t played like a team resting for their own playoff run; they fought, they checked, they attacked. It created a game that looked an awful lot more like Game 7 of a Stanley Cup Final than a regular season game featuring a team that had already clinched.
In the press box, Lou Lamoriello, the Devils rookie general manager, and Max McNab, the vice president and former general manager who had suffered through enough Devils jokes to bury a meadowlands landfill, had danced their own joyous jig when John MacLean’s winning shot stretched the net behind Blackhawks goalie Darren Pang with 2:21 gone in overtime.
McNab had seen it all. He had watched Hector Marini, Brent Ashton, Jukka Porvari, John Wensink, Tapio Levo, and other assorted worthies storm to 17 wins and 49 losses in 1982-83, their first season in New Jersey. He had listened to Wayne Gretzky’s considered opinion that the Devils were the Mickey Mouse Club on ice (There. Isn’t that Annette?) after Edmonton oiled the Devils 13-4 in 1983. He had watched the Devils go 18 games without a win in 1982. He had seen it all, and none of it was very pretty.
Lamoriello hadn’t seen any of it. Brought in at the beginning of the season, he had only seen a team with potential that hadn’t quite made it. He kept saying, “I don’t know what happened before I got here,” but he had to know. Everybody knew.
As it was, Lamoriello ended the game with a soggy paper napkin hanging out of his mouth It (sic) the only pacifier he could find as he watched the agonizingly suspenseful game.
“You know,” he was told later, “you were eating a napkin. ”
“I was? ” he said with genuine surprise.
Celizic, Mike. “A TASTE OF HEAVEN FOR DEVILS AFTER YEARS OF HELLFIRE.” The Record (New Jersey) 4 Apr. 1988, Sports: D01
And from the players:
The odds were stacked so heavily against the Devils that no Las Vegas bookie would have touched the bet.
The payoff would have been staggering, just like the Devils accomplishment. The Devils are in the playoffs.
Facing the Chicago Blackhawks in sudden-death overtime in the final regular-season game of the National Hockey League season, the Devils knew they needed a win to finish ahead of the Rangers. A tie, and they would be losers . . . again.
They had already battled back from 2-1 and 3-2 deficits to tie the game, and John MacLean’s goal at 11:57 of the third had forced the overtime. Coach Jim Schoenfeld was ready to pull goalie Sean Burke with 1:30 remaining for an extra skater, but MacLean made the move unnecessary.
MacLean bashed in a rebound of a Joe Cirella shot with 2:39 remaining in overtime to give the Devils a 4-3 victory and their first Stanley Cup playoff berth since the team moved to New Jersey in 1982.
First shock, then numbness, then a wild outpouring of joy flowed from the Devils bench and onto the ice. At one end of Chicago Stadium, they mobbed MacLean. At the other, they hugged rookie goalie Burke, who was 10-1-0 through the stretch and who kept the Devils dreams alive with some key saves.
“I’ve wanted this since I was 16 years old,” shouted Devils right wing Pat Verbeek, who had scored his 46th goal of the season to tie the game at 2-2 late in the second period. “It felt like the Stanley Cup. I don’t know if winning the Stanley Cup can be any better than this. ”
“This is the best day of my life,” added an exultant Ken Daneyko, who scored a goal. “When I missed that shot in overtime, I was ready to cry my eyes out, but Johnny [MacLean] was there to score for us. I’m still on cloud nine. ”
“I don’t know how we did it,” said an exhausted Johnson, who assisted on MacLean’s game-tying goal. After the first period, everybody was tired, and not only physically tired but emotionally tired. How many times could we go to the well? We just kept telling ourselves to push it, and push it, and push it. The feeling after the game would be the one you’d remember.”
Exhaustion turned to elation. MacLean, a 31-goal scorer last year who had struggled through the first half of the season, came alive when it counted. He scored seven goals in the last seven games, two of which were game-winners.
“It was the biggest goal of my life, just huge,” said MacLean. “I love replaying it. Joey came in from the right point and shot it, and [Darren] Pang went down and made the save. It came right back to me as I scooted through the slot, and as soon as I got it, I shot it.
“It meant a lot to me,” said MacLean. “The guys in this room believed in me, and no one ever got down on me. This is unbelievable. It’s so great for this organization. We’re in the playoffs! ”
Ross, Sherry. “DEVILS BREAK THE ICE! FIRST-EVER BERTH IN NHL PLAYOFFS.” The Record (New Jersey) 4 Apr. 1988, Sports: D01
The Devils’ win had eliminated the Rangers, which was extra sweet to one Devil. From the same article as above:
One ex-Ranger, Doug Sulliman, who was sidelined with a left knee injury Sunday night, savored his vision of the Rangers watching on TV back in New York.
“I was thinking those S.O.B.’s were watching this, and when Chicago went ahead they were high-fiving one another, whooping it up when we went into overtime,” said Sulliman, hoarse from excitement. “As bad it it was to go through this game, this was better than winning 7-2. It was just so good for us. It’s unbelievable.”
And in fact, back east it was agony.
After winning their final regular-season game to keep alive their playoff chances Sunday night, the Rangers watched on television as the New Jersey Devils won in overtime to eliminate New York from post-season play for the first time under the present format.
‘First of all, I congratulate Lou Lamoriello and Jim Schoenfeld on a great job,’ Rangers General Manager Phil Esposito said. ‘But, since January 21, we have been the third best overall team in the NHL. We are 31 points ahead of one of the teams in the playoffs (Toronto).
‘I feel sorry for our fans and our ownership. This is a heck of a hockey team, and it would’ve done well in the playoffs. The present playoff format stinks, and I am going to move heaven and earth to get it changed.’
Kelly Kisio set up third-period goals by John Ogrodnick and Mark Hardy, and John Vanbiesbrouck stopped 20 shots, giving New York a 3-0 triumph over the Quebec Nordiques.
The Devils, however, defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 4-3, eliminating the Rangers from the playoffs for the first time since the 1976-77 season.
Vanbiesbrouck put the Rangers’ season in proper perspective.
‘This is a good hockey team, and what cost us was out up-and-down early season start,’ he said. ‘It turns out we fell too far behind.’
The victory gave the Rangers a 36-34-10 record and 82 points, tied with the Devils, who earned their first playoff berth in team history by virtue of more victories.
‘We did what we had to do in beating Quebec,’ said defenseman James Patrick, who was voted team MVP by writers before the game. ‘It’s a tough feeling when there’s nothing you can do about something somewhere else.’
The Rangers watched the Devils game in their lounge along with the media.
When John MacLean scored the tying goal, there were loud groans. When referee Kelly Fraser called a penalty on Chicago in the final minute of regulation, there were cries of anguish punctuated by curses.
When MacLean scored the winner, a pall fell over the room. The players slowly left their chairs and returned to the lockerroom. Esposito and Bergeron quietly entered the room and shook all the players’ hands, wishing them well for the summer.UPI NewsTrack 4 Apr. 1988, News
They did not go quietly.
The dream season ended Saturday night with Game 100 for the Devils, who fell behind by three goals, rallied within one, then lost to the Boston Bruins, 6-2, in Game7 of the Wales Conference Championship at Boston Garden.
Thus ends the miracle of the Meadowlands, as one of the youngest teams in hockey rose within one victory of the sport’s greatest showcase the Stanley Cup finals in one incredible surge while capturing the imagination of underdog-lovers throughout the continent.
The Devils trailed 3-0 early in the second period, and appeared to be left for dead, failing to get a single shot on Bruins goalie Reggie Lemelin for a span of 18 minutes and withstanding three consecutive Boston power plays.
But John MacLean scored at 15:28 of the second period, and captain Kirk Muller scored at 3:41 of the third, narrowing the gap to 3-2. Boston dodged numerous bullets before scoring three goals in the last eight minutes.
The Bruins move on to play the Edmonton Oilers in a best-of-seven series to determine the Stanley Cup champion, beginning Wednesday night at Edmonton.…Faced with a win-or-go-home proposition with eight games left, the Devils had an amazing 7-0-1 stretch to finish the season. That was capped by a dramatic overtime victory at Chicago April 3 the last day of the season to edge the Rangers for the final playoff berth.
The Devils then survived two extremely competitive series, defeating the Islanders in six games and the Washington Capitals in seven. Then came Boston.
The Devils withstood a physical beating, a one-game suspension to Schoenfeld for verbally abusing a referee after Game 3, a bizarre, 72-hour period in which the NHL weighed Schoenfeld’s fate, and the frustration of lopsided defeats (6-1 and 7-1) in Games 3 and 5 to even the series after six games.
They came within one victory of crashing hockey’s greatest party. For a franchise scorned as “a Mickey Mouse team” by Wayne Gretzky of the Oilers in 1983 when the Devils were perennial basement dwellers that is not likely to be forgotten any time soon.D’Alessandro, Dave. “DEVILS LOSE – CINDERELLA SEASON ENDS.” The Record (New Jersey) 15 May 1988, News: A01