The New Jersey Devils had just survived a furious end-to-end third period in the seventh game of the second playoff series in their history for a 3-2 win over the Washington Capitals, and now in their raucous dressing room a foresighted optimist was handing out T-shirts that indeed said it all: PATRICK DIVISION PLAYOFF CHAMPIONS! The team that had spent more years in the cellar than most brandies had suddenly become a juggernaut that was within eight victories of the Stanley Cup. And the Devils, a bunch of kids with downy beards, were enjoying every unexpected minute of it, shouting, being interviewed by the media and sucking on Charms Pops, provided as a postgame team snack by forward David Maley's mom.
For their part, the Capitals had to be hard put to find any charm in a rival that drew a playoff-record 349 penalty minutes while bouncing them out of the playoffs. But even the Caps would have to admit that the Devils had grown up right before their eyes. On Saturday night, the Devils had momentary lapses, but for the most part remained unflustered, proving just how far and how fast they have come in one season. In 1986-87 they finished 20th overall in the 21-team NHL.
For five games it had been a visiting team's series, with the Caps winning three and the Devils winning two games on their opponent's ice, and Saturday night promised more of the same when the Devils jumped to a 2-0 lead. But the Caps struck twice late in the second period. First, defenseman Grant Ledyard beat screened Devils goalie Sean Burke on a blast from the point, and then, with just six seconds to intermission, Garry Galley tied the score on a knuckleball-type shot that fluttered past the screened-again Burke.
Washington seemed all hopped up. Two weeks earlier, in Game 7 against Philadelphia, the Caps had wiped out a 3-0 Flyers lead and won in overtime. The Devils, on the other hand, had never played in a Game 7. But it was New Jersey that took control in the third period by sticking to coach Jim Schoenfeld's series-long game plan: forecheck aggressively, control the neutral zone, disrupt the rushes of the Washington defensemen. Schoenfeld had installed this sweat-intensive system when he took over from Doug Carpenter on Jan. 26, as the Devils were experiencing their annual midseason swoon. Schoenfeld's work ethic was just the thing the Devils needed. "He makes you want to go through the wall for him," says forward Pat Verbeek.
May 8, 1988
The reward came at 13:49 when John MacLean, the Devils' opportunistic right wing, deflected a Craig Wolanin slap shot over the right shoulder of Washington goalie Pete Peeters. For MacLean, who could never escape Carpenter's doghouse, it was his fifth memorable goal in a month. In the last game of the regular season, with the Devils needing a win at Chicago to gain a place in the playoffs, MacLean scored a third-period goal to force overtime and then won the game with another goal. In Round 1 of the playoffs against the New York Islanders, MacLean twice scored goals to send games into sudden death. After his Saturday night heroics, MacLean begged, "Don't anybody pinch me, in case I wake up."
After MacLean's score, all that remained was for the Devils' freshest face to hold off the Caps a little longer. Burke, New Jersey's 21-year-old goalie, with just 23 NHL games under his pads since arriving from the Canadian Olympic team, was unshakable in the final period. Cap after Cap desperately fired away at him, but Burke made spectacular save after spectacular save, winding up with 30 in all. "Of course there's going to be pressure," said Burke later. "That's what makes the game fun."
Burke's enjoyment was the product of hunch-playing by Schoenfeld, who had pulled his rookie after the second period of the Caps' 7-2 win in Game 6 on Thursday at the Meadowlands Arena. There was speculation that for Game 7 the coach would turn to Bob Sauve, who had won Game 5 in Washington by a 3-1 score. Schoenfeld even polled his assistants and a few players, but when no one offered any telling argument for one goaltender over the other, he went with his first instinct—The Kid. After all, Burke had led the Devils into the playoffs by going 10-1 down the stretch, and he had beaten the Islanders in the final two games of the previous series.
On Friday afternoon, in the shower room at the Capital Centre, Schoenfeld told Burke the finale would be in his hands, and flipped the rookie a bar of soap. Clunk! It fell through one of those supposedly sure mitts, but Burke refused to let a symbolic slipup rattle him. "I dropped it," he said, "but it didn't get into the net." Fact was, Burke was hungering for redemption and revenge. As Burke left the ice in Game 6, having given up five goals, Caps coach Bryan Murray had taunted him. "It was a little incentive for me to stick it to them," Burke said after Saturday's victory.
Schoenfeld's show of faith in Burke was just one of many moves that have paid off for New Jersey. In the regular season, he not only rescued MacLean from the end of the bench, but he also resurrected left wing Patrik Sundstrom, who scored 10 points in the Washington series, including a playoff-record-breaking eight (3 goals, 5 assists) in Game 3. After Game 7, Schoenfeld, who for 13 NHL seasons made a living by giving up his body in defense of his goaltenders, deflected all the credit to his charges. "I'm privileged to be their coach," he said. The Devils, though, think the privilege is theirs. "We knew when he played he gave a hundred percent, so the respect is there," says captain Kirk Muller. "And he's gotten us to believe in ourselves."
For the Capitals, there was only the all-too-familiar frustration at an early exit from the playoffs: They have never advanced beyond the second round. Granted, they had shown true grit this spring, rallying to win the last three games from Philadelphia and going to seven games with the Devils. And they did it without the services of defenseman Rod Langway, who had a leg muscle and tendon sliced by Verbeek's skate in Game 1, and without the scoring of Mike Gartner, who had 48 goals during the regular season but just two against the Devils.
"Just the same old story—carbon copy—we couldn't put the puck in the net. We fell short again," said center Bob Gould. "You got to give Burke full marks. He played well. But I wouldn't want to say he's the sole reason they won. Schoenfeld's got them playing a very sound system."
So while the Caps were left to wonder what had gone wrong again, the Devils flew off to Boston to play the Bruins in a best-of-seven series for the Wales Conference championship. And Schoenfeld wasn't ordering any wake-up calls for MacLean, or any other Devils.