Thanks to rookie Sean Burke's inspired goaltending, the New Jersey Devils squeaked into the playoffs
April 10, 1988

They say Boston Garden is filled with ghosts, and on March 5 one might have been excused for thinking that Sean Burke was one of them. Pucks were sailing through the New Jersey Devils' rookie goaltender—six of them, to be exact. Burke was making his first NHL start, after having played for Team Canada in the Olympics, and his performance against the Bruins raised a few eyebrows on the New Jersey bench and more back home among the perpetually suffering Devils faithful.

Burke's arrival in the Devils' lineup had been awaited with trembling anticipation. Surely "the next Ken Dryden," as the 6'3" Burke had been billed, would swoop down from the Games and single-handedly lift the Devils into the playoffs for the first time since the club moved to New Jersey in 1982. But in Boston, Burke looked less like the next Dryden and more like the next Steve (The Puck Goes Inski) Buzinski.

"In their subconscious, the guys had been waiting for Sean to come in and help," says Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld. "Instead of turning on him when he played badly, they picked him up." Indeed, Burke's new teammates rolled out the welcome wagon by scoring seven goals against the Bruins to give him his first NHL victory.

But Burke was not exactly extraterrestrial in his next few starts, either. He faced only 24 shots in a 4-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on March 6, was yanked from the game after allowing three first-period goals to the New York Rangers two nights later, gave up five goals in another win over the Flyers and lost 4-3 to the Quebec Nordiques. Around East Rutherford, N.J., the word about the Devils' playoff hopes was "Wait till next year."

But the Devils didn't quit. Inspired by Burke's increasingly steady and spectacular goaltending, they rolled off a seven-game unbeaten streak to thrust themselves into the Patrick Division playoff race. Facing one do-or-die situation after another last week, Burke and the Devils beat the Rangers, swept a pair from the Penguins—Burke shut out Mario Lemieux and friends one night—and then defeated the division-champion New York Islanders. All of which left them needing a win in Chicago Sunday night to claim the final playoff spot from the Rangers and the Penguins.

In New York, the Rangers could only watch in despair as Burke made two scintillating saves in the third period to keep the score tied at 3-3 and get the Devils into overtime. He made another game-saving stop in sudden death, and then with the Devils' season down to the last 2 minutes and 39 seconds, John MacLean scored off a rebound to give New Jersey a victory and a Stanley Cup series against the Islanders.

Fact is, the Devils enter the playoffs as the hottest team in the NHL, with only two losses in 13 games. "I don't know if they're worried about us," says Burke of the Islanders, who beat New Jersey four games to three in their season's series, "but we sort of think we can beat anybody right now."

Burke finished the first month of his NHL career with a 10-1 record, including a remarkable 7-0 on the road. At one point last week he went 306 minutes—more than five games—without giving up an even-strength goal. "It's been like having Ken Dryden," says Devils forward George McPhee. In December, Dryden, who had seen Burke play for Team Canada, said, "He has the necessary tools for greatness, certainly to at least have a strong NHL career." But, Dryden wondered, could Burke turn in topflight performances night in and night out? In his last four starts, with elimination from the playoffs the penalty for defeat, Burke allowed a stingy 1.75 goals per game.

Burke plays with the confidence of a veteran, leaving the crease to poke check the puck away from opposing forwards and to jostle with rivals who invade his crease. "You have to do what you have to do to keep yourself in the game." he says.

Says New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello, who with Schoenfeld made the decision to gamble and go with the 21-year-old rookie down the stretch, "Sean doesn't let a bad goal affect him. He's like a smart pitcher who throws a home run ball. He won't make the same mistake twice."

Perhaps best of all, Burke is Mr. Cool on the ice. Nothing seems to bother him. On the night Burke shut out Pittsburgh, the message board at the Meadowlands announced the birthday of Sherry Ross, a sportswriter who regularly covers the Devils. In the dressing room afterward, Burke offered Ross his hand and wished her happy birthday. "Weren't you supposed to be keeping an eye on Lemieux and [Paul] Coffey?" asked Ross.

"Oh, I had some time," he said.

Thanks to Burke, the Devils, who are usually busy filling out foursomes this time of year, do not.