The dynamic and disciplined general manager assumed command prior to training camp, with a young organization’s hopes riding on his every move. After 50 games, the general manager who was at the helm of a sub- .500 team traded in the team’s coach of three-plus years for a new, brash and fiery one with only 43 games behind an NHL bench on his resumé.
Who knew the mixture of Lou Lamoriello and Jim Schoenfeld would bring about historic results in 1988? “Around the NHL, people still talk about the ’88 run” ex-Devil defenseman Joe Cirella said. “Everyone remembers it. It was a good story and I think people continue to believe in that sort of stuff. That’s one of those fairy tales.”
As any Devils’ fan from the 1980’s could tell you, the dream actually came true in that 1987-88 season. The Devils, called a “Mickey Mouse organization” by the “Great One” only four seasons prior, not only made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, they were only one win away from playing for the Stanley Cup.
“Absolutely, there was relief because it was the goal that was finally accomplished,” Cirella said. “You could just see the weight of everything come off. Everybody said, ‘This is Part One of our accomplishment, and anything could happen now.’
That’s exactly what ended up happening. We knew once we got in the playoffs, anything could happen. We finally broke that jinx, and now it was just a matter of playing the underdog card all the way through. “There were no expectations, and that’s why it was great.”
Everything seemed to fall into place for the Devils. Lamoriello signed on to be the team’s general manager prior to training camp after spending 20 years as a hockey coach and athletic director at Providence College. He brought with him his systematic way of getting things done, a formula that yielded so much success at Providence.
Lamoriello was 248-179-13 in 15 years leading the Friars’ hockey club. He made the NCAA Final Four in 1983, and won the ECAC championship in 1981.
“I don’t know if it was a spark or just an influx of character, but we were redefined,” Cirella said. “It was, ‘Here is your job, and everyone needs to buy into their specific role.’ When we started having success with that, everyone bought it.”
Before Lamoriello arrived, third-year forward Kirk Muller, who was all of 21 years old at the time, had been named the team’s new captain by then-General Manager Max McNab. Lamoriello kept the ‘C’ on Muller’s sweater, and to the players that was a sign of responsibility. A pair of veterans, Don Lever and Mel Bridgman, had worn the ‘C’ prior to Muller.
“That was the passing of the torch,” Cirella said. “The responsibility changed. It was given to the young guys. It was a symbolic gesture. It was them saying, ‘Here’s the ball, and you guys roll with it.’ We definitely did. It was quite a memorable experience.” “Mel and Donny Lever were tremendous, but it’s almost like the realization that they’re putting the responsibility on us now as a young group.
We had to start taking over the team, putting our mold on it,” added John MacLean, a former player and current Devils’ assistant coach. The Devils, though, were a mere 21-24-5 before Lamoriello made the coaching change, hiring Schoenfeld to replace Doug Carpenter.
Carpenter won 100 games in three-plus season as the Devils’ coach, but Schoenfeld was coming in having not coached in the NHL since January 15, 1986. He was 19-19-5 in 43 games with the Buffalo Sabres in 1985-86 before then- General Manager Scotty Bowman came down to the bench to assume the coaching duties.
“We started to get better and better, and then we made that coaching change,” MacLean said. “Shoeny was perfect for us at the time.” Also perfect was the addition of Canadian Olympic goalie Sean Burke, who arrived after the 1988 Olympic Winter Games in Calgary and caught fire on U.S. soil. He went 10-1 with a 3.05 goals against average, igniting the team’s run into the post-season. “Burke came from the Olympics and he was on fire,” MacLean said.
It’s a good thing, too, because had he not, the Devils likely would have been on the outside looking in at the playoffs again.
The margin for error in the final eight games of the regular-season was microscopic. The Devils were battling their cross-river rivals, the New York Rangers, for the final spot in the Patrick Division playoffs, and it came down to the last day of the season. The Devils gained ground on the favored Rangers by gaining at least one point in each of their last seven games. They won six of those seven, including four straight starting with a dominating 7-2 decision over New York.
For the Rangers, that loss to the Devils and a tie three nights later at Winnipeg meant they were deadlocked with the Devils with 80 points on April 3. The Devils were finishing the regular season in Chicago while the Rangers were home against Quebec. The Rangers finished their 3-0 victory before the Devils started in Chicago, so all eyes turned to Chicago Stadium. If the Devils won, even though they’d be tied with the Rangers with 82 points, they would go to the playoffs because they had one more victory.
John MacLean (shown, 1987-88 season) scores the game-winning goal in overtime as the Devils defeat the Blackhawks, 4-3, to clinch the team's first-ever playoff spot.
“I had a feeling that we were going to win,” MacLean said. “We never thought that we weren’t going to win. We never thought of what we weren’t going to do.” The Devils trailed, 3-2, midway through the third period. That’s when MacLean put his historic mark on the franchise. He scored the game-tying goal, and two minutes into overtime added the game winner as the Devils spilled onto the Chicago ice to celebrate what was then the biggest victory in franchise history.
“The chemistry on the team was right for that situation,” MacLean said. The celebration lasted all the way until game seven of the Wales Conference Finals.
The Devils first advanced past the Patrick Division Semifinals by knocking off the Islanders in six games, winning the series with a 6-5 victory at the Meadowlands behind a winning goal from Patrik Sundstrom.
“We stunned the Islanders because some of their older players couldn’t match our enthusiasm,” MacLean said.
They needed seven games to beat Washington in the Patrick Division Finals, but got it done with a 3-2 win on the road thanks to another game winner from MacLean. They were knotted with Boston at three games apiece in the Conference Finals, but suffered a 6-2 loss at the old Boston Garden on May 14, 1988 that ended their miraculous and shocking playoff run.
“You can never replace a first,” MacLean said. “We were the first Devils’ team to do it, and it was a good feeling for everybody to be a part of. It was big at the time and it will always be big, and it gives a little credibility to everybody else who played for the Devils after it. It was a building block. There was some light at the end of the tunnel. “Gosh,” he added, “we were a game away from going to the Stanley Cup Finals. That was quite a feat.”
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