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Underdogs to the End of the Wales Conference Finals: The 1987-88 New Jersey Devils

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The New Jersey Devils season that best represents them as underdogs would be the 1987-88 season. They barely made the playoffs for the first time since the move to New Jersey, and went on to stun the Islanders and Capitals, and take Boston to the brink. This post is a look back at the team’s first playoff run, unexpected as it was.

New Jersey Devils v New York Islanders
Patrik Sundstrom went from 71 to 51 points in his first season with the Devils. He became the scoring leader in the team’s first playoff run with 20 points.
Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images

This week throughout the hockey blogs at SB Nation, plenty of team sites have been discussing underdogs. As well as dogs. But this is All About the Jersey, a New Jersey Devils blog. Dogs are not Devils. But the Devils’ history has plenty of times where they were unexpected to succeed and managed to do so for one reason or another. Some of these rank among the most cherished memories among fans. It is natural to want to see someone rise up and succeed against seemingly insurmountable odds. It is the base for many stories in books. It is a common arc in movies. Professional wrestling is built on this basic concept. And they are beloved in sports. After all, there’s a reason why they’re called Cinderalla stories and are celebrated. No one describes teams as the Wicked Stepmother.

To that end, I want to highlight a season and playoff run that best represents an underdog within this franchise’s great history. You probably know the season. You may have even lived through it. And it is never not a marvel to look back on it.

The Underdog Season: The 1987-88 New Jersey Devils

Back in the 1980s, the National Hockey League had 21 teams. Sixteen of them qualified for the playoffs. It was not as simple as being better than the fifth-worst team overall. The top four teams in their division make the playoffs. In three divisions, not being last was good enough. The exception for most of the decade was the six-team Patrick Division, formed after the Colorado Rockies left the Smythe after the 1981-82 season and the New Jersey Devils joined for the 1982-83 season. (Winnipeg switched from the Norris to the Smythe to make the Norris a five-team division and keep the Smythe at five). The Rockies were bad. The Devils were still bad. While they were not in last, they finished 32 points behind the fourth-place Rangers. Given that the franchise moved to New Jersey, it had just one postseason appearance before 1988. And that was because a Rockies team that went 19-40-21 for 59 points finished second in a stupendously weak Smythe Division in 1977-78. The lack of success continuing in New Jersey made outsiders disrespect the team and those inside were changed out for a matter of accountability.

The 1987-88 season would be different. This was when the team hired Lou Lamoriello from Hockey East to be the President of the team. He named himself GM before the season. He took control and things were going to be different. The team did have some talent up front. Kirk Muller was playing like a star and he led a line of Aaron Broten and Pat Verbeek to score loads of points. The blueline was led by Bruce Driver and Joe Cirella. There was a rookie staking his claim in Brendan Shanahan. The younger players brought in from past years of drafting high and often started to bear fruit.

However, it was not at all an easy season. John MacLean had a downer of a season in terms of production, dropping from 31 goals and 67 points the season prior to just 23 and 39 points. Mark Johnson also saw a big drop in production, going from 25 goals and 51 points down to 14 goals and 33 points in a season undercut by injury. A big trade that brought in Patrik Sundstrom, who scored 71 points with Vancouver in 1986-87, in September 1987 went on to put up twenty fewer points in the 1987-88 season. Head coach Doug Carpenter got the axe after putting together a 21-24-5. Lou brought in Jim Schoenfeld in an effort to salvage the season. This would be Schoenfeld’s second season ever as a head coach and he did not make the playoffs in his one season as the bench boss in Buffalo back in 1985-86. And, in March, that same team put their faith in 21-year old (and Olympian) Sean Burke in the net as he ended up taking the job from veterans Alain Chevrier and Bob Sauve (I cannot confirm if an injury was involved). The Devils were on the bubble all season long and ended up needing to beat Chicago in their building - who punched their ticket with a 30-41-9 record - in the final game of the season to secure their first ever playoff spot. If not, they would miss the playoffs yet again and Our Hated Rivals would have taken their spot. If the pressure was not enough, that game went into overtime.

You know what happened. The line of Sundstrom, MacLean, and Johnson attacked. Cirella pinched in for a shot. The rebound came right out to MacLean, who slammed it into the net. Let the celebration commence. John MacLean’s goal did not just win a game, it secured a trip to the playoffs along with a winning record for the first time ever in franchise history. It was finally the Devils time to shine - amid a season with some key players having notable drops in production, the head coach changing mid-season, the goaltending being put on the shoulders of a rookie, and a new GM still establishing how he wanted business to be done.

They were the underdogs then. Per Hockey-Reference, they had the worst odds (+15000) to win the Cup before the 1987-88 season. Of course they had the worst odds; they did not come even close to making the postseason in past seasons. They were often the team better teams would feast on for points. They were tagged as “Mickey Mouse” by the Great One. They were doormats in Kansas City, Colorado, and New Jersey for years. Not in 1987-88. This was the season where they began to force a change in how people saw them. Getting into the playoffs was absolutely an achievement given where they were. As was having a winning record in the regular season. What really got them some well-earned respect for a change was the playoff run to come.

The Underdog Playoff Run: The 1988 New Jersey Devils

Sure, the Devils made the playoffs. But they barely got in. Their reward was a series against the New York Islanders. The dynasty was over, but the Isles did not sag that much. They still were postseason regulars and they won the Patrick for the first time since the 1983-84 season. It was a super-tight race; they won it with 88 points. The Devils had 82. The 87-88 Isles still had future Hall of Famers Bryan Trottier (who was still a point machine at age 31), Denis Potvin (who was better than any Ranger ever), and Billy Smith (he gave way to the other goalie this season). They had a young star named Pat LaFontaine, who led them in scoring. He also led a youth movement as a lot of the players on that roster were under 30 years old. Players such as center and team captain Brent Sutter, winger Mikko Makela, and goaltender Kelly Hrudey. The smart money would have had the Isles win this series.

That did not happen. The Devils hung with the Isles and ultimately upset them. Game 1 saw the Devils make a two-goal comeback to force overtime with a big PPG by MacLean late in the third period. While LaFontaine sealed the win for New Jersey, the Devils won Game 2 by a close 3-2 final score. featuring goals by MacLean, Claude Loiselle (shorthanded), and a Mark Johnson PPG amid just 16 shots on Hrudy. When the series went to East Rutherford, Burke had a magnificient game in shutting out the Isles. Ken Daneyko scored and Johnson had a double to really give a rude awakening to the Isles in Game 3. If they expected an easy time, then that game told them otherwise. The Devils nearly put them on the brink in Game 4. While the Isles blew up an early three-goal lead, MacLean scored within the final two minutes to force overtime again at 4-4. Sutter won that one with a shorthanded goal to tie up the series. But those who watched needed to at least give the Devils some credit instead of getting swept. They were battling.

And the battles yielded wins. In Game 5 at Nassau, Burke was a star again and the Devils rolled over the Isles with a three-goal second period to win 4-2. Back at the Meadowlands, the Devils would seal the deal in the most wild way possible. They managed to go up 6-1 in the third period with a PPG by Sundstrom, his second of the game (and the playoffs). The Isles scored four straight goals in the third. They really put the pedal to the medal. But they could not get that fifth goal in the period and so the Devils held on to win 6-5. The upset was complete. And they did it amid six games filled with penalties, some great nights from Burke, and players like MacLean, Johnson, and Sundstrom getting hot.

So the Devils won a playoff round. Surely, the second round would be it. Washington, a team that was the definition of good but never great in the 1980s, would be the next opponent. After years of never getting past the second round, I am sure the Caps fans were looking forward to this one after a nasty seven game series with Philly. The Devils were definitely not expected to keep going. They did not have defensemen like Scott Stevens or Larry Murphy. They did not have a winger like Mike Gartner. Burke had some very good games but he was no Pete Peeters. In Game 1, the Caps decisively beat the Devils 1-3. As with the Isles series, Game 2 was a rude awakening. Aaron Broten dropped a hat trick on the Caps, Pat Verbeek scored late in the second to deny any inspiration from Murphy scoring less than a minute earlier, and Sundstrom tacked on a PPG in the third for a 5-2 win. This led to Game 3, one of the most jaw-dropping Devils playoff games in franchise history.

Game 3 was a 10-4 win by the Devils. That is not a typo. The Devils put double-digits on Clint Malarchuk (yes, the guy who nearly died from his neck being cut by a skate) and Peeters. This was the game where Sundstrom set a NHL record with 8 points in this game: 3 goals and 5 assists. Sundstrom was not even the leading goal scorer in this game. Mark Johnson put up four goals of his own, with three of them coming on the power play. The other three goals came from Anders Carlsson, Loiselle (shorthanded, too), and Doug Brown. The Devils beat down the Caps like no other performance before or arguably since. There were a lot of beat downs among the players as both teams racked up over a hundred penalty minutes each. I counted nine fighting majors, five unsportsmanlike conducts, and matching attempt to injure calls in the Hockey-Reference boxscore. If Game 2 woke the Capitals to the possibility that the Devils could beat them, then Game 3 was a kick in the groin to let them know.

Game 4 was the response by the Caps. While the Devils struck first with a Tom Kurvers PPG that I am sure made Toronto want to give up their 1991 first round pick for him, the Caps responded instantly with an equalizer. The Devils lost 1-4. There was plenty of beef, but just 88 combined penalty minutes’ worth of it. Game 5 featured Bob Sauve coming in and having a great night by stopping 28 out of 29. It also featured Kirk Muller styling on the Caps with two goals and an assist in a 3-1 win at the Capitals’ rink. The Devils put Washington on the brink. Despite Loiselle scoring 18 seconds into Game 6 at the Meadowlands, the Caps enacted a rout of their own. No one but Stevens had more than two points - he had four assists - as it was a team effort to hand the Devils a big 2-7 loss. Somewhere within this series, I think the Cinderella narrative started to pick up steam. Was the clock going to strike midnight for Cinderella in Washington D.C.?

No. In an close contest in Game 7 where Muller scored 14 seconds in, the Devils went up 2-0 in the first, and the Caps tied it up in the second and were heavily pressuring for the third goal, MacLean became the hero again. The Caps tried to make a final push but they were repelled by Burke and the defense in the dying minutes. The fans were stunned to see the Capitals bow out in the second round again. The Devils were heading to the Prince of Wales Conference Finals. Dan and I talked about this game in particular in this episode of Garden State of Hockey a couple of weeks back if you want to hear what we thought of this game in more detail. But the point remained the same: Cinderella was still dancing at the ball, even if she was going to be shipping up to Boston.

Most fans remember this series as the one where Schoenfeld told referee Don Koharski to “go eat another doughnut, you fat pig,” after a scuffle after Game 3. Koharski slipped on his own, the ref yelled that Schoenfeld pushed him and told him he’d never coach again, Schoenfeld dropped his doughnut line, and things got weird. Larry Brooks was with the Devils at the time and has the whole story detailed in this article at the New York Post. That line led to a series of events kind of forgotten in time since the Devils ended up losing in this series. First, Schoenfeld was suspended. Then, Lou got an injunction since the coach could not appeal the suspension like a player would so Schoenfeld could coach Game 4. Then the original referees refused to work Game 4 so some off-ice officials did. Then a hearing took place before Game 5 and ultimately Schoenfeld served his suspension for Game 5, which would break a tied series.

What’s that? A tied series against Boston? Yes. While the Devils would lose this series, this was by no means a decisive one for the B’s. This one actually went the distance to Game 7. The 1987-88 Devils that needed an win in overtime on the road to just get in the playoffs were indeed one game away from going to the Stanley Cup Finals. Since Edmonton was dominating the league at the time, Boston had a good team. Under Terry O’Reilly’s first full season behind the bench, the B’s won over 40 games for the first time since 1983-84 and finished second in the Adams with a 44-30-6 record. The team was led by their star defenseman, Ray Bourque, who officially changed his number to #77 after giving #7 back to Phil Esposito when his number was retired in December 1987. Cam Neely was 22, healthy, and potted 42 goals that season. Their offense was well supported by Geoff Courtnall, Ken Linseman, Steve Kasper, Bob Sweeney, Randy Burridge, and Glen Wesley among others. Reggie Lemelin was doing a fine job in the crease and if he faltered, Andy Moog was more than capable as a backup. This was going to be yet another challenge on paper. Another series where few expected the Devils to compete, much less prevail.

The series began like the other two with a clear loss for the Devils. This was a 3-5 defeat, with the main difference being that Boston pulled away in the third period. As with the other two series, the Devils tied it up in Game 2. Burke put on a fantastic performance with 39 saves out of 41 shots. The Devils held onto a 2-1 lead up until Bob Joyce scored with less than five minutes left. But overtime would go in New Jersey’s favor. Doug Brown scored before the 18th minute mark of the first overtime to tie up the series heading back to the Meadowlands.

From Game 3 onward, the series featured each team just trading wins. The Devils were crushed in a 1-6 defeat by Boston. The lone scorer was Shanahan’s first playoff goal of 1988 amid six different Bruin scorers with five in the second period alone. Of course, the Schoenfeld-Koharski beef after the game overshadowed that one. And the fact that the Devils were massively pumped up for Game 4 with Schoenfeld behind the bench in what would be a 3-1 decisive win. Goals by David Maley, Verbeek, and Kurvers out of just 18 shots were enough as Burke denied everything except a PPG by Neely. The series went back to Boston for Game 5 and it was a nasty affair with penalties (a lot of playoff games back then had a long penalty list) but the score was clear-cut as to who controlled the game. The Devils lost 1-7 in Game 5. I do not know if Schoenfeld’s presence would have changed that. Per Brooks’ article, Lou was behind the bench. Something about a six-goal loss makes me think the man behind the bench was not really the issue. But he did return in Game 6, which ended up being a 6-3 win. Johnson scored two in the first period. While Boston tied it up in the second, MacLean broke the tie before intermission. Pat Conacher scored on the thirteenth shot against Lemelin to make it 5-3. Sundstrom scored on Moog to make it a 6-3 win. The Devils were heading back to Boston for a massive Game 7. Coming off a win, with their head coach behind them again, and nothing to lose. While as a fan, you could say this was effectively playing with house money. After all, the winner would go on to get sacrificed to Edmonton. But at this point, who would not want to see the Devils go all the way in their first time in getting even on the path in the first place?

Unfortunately, the clock struck midnight on May 14, 1988. In a relatively well-disciplined game, the Bruins went up early and staved off a comeback attempt. Craig Janney converted a power play in the first period and scored again in the third to deny the Devils from tying it up. The Devils did well to battle back from a 0-3 deficit to 2-3 early in the third with goals by MacLean and Muller. But Janney’s goal at 12:05 of the third put the B’s back up two and Neely’s goal over a minute later effectively nailed the coffin shut. Linseman’s empty netter ended the game for a 2-6 loss for the Devils. The carriage became a pumpkin. The ornate dress became peasant rags. The carriage driver became a horse. The horses became mice. There was not even a crystal slipper left behind. Midnight was stuck. The Devils were eliminated.

Concluding Thoughts

Even so, the Devils went above and beyond any expectations they had ahead of the 1987-88 season. Lou was a total unknown then in the NHL world. The team had its ups and downs, but they meant more given its results. It turned out that every game that season did matter as they made the playoffs from a tiebreaker in points. The Devils had more wins than Our Hated Rivals. If it was not for that OT win in Chicago, the playoffs in the Wales Conference would have gone very differently. I still think Edmonton would crush them at the end, as they did to Boston in a four-game sweep. The 1987-88 squad did this despite some less-than-expected production from what would be their second line in the playoffs, a young goalie coming in during the stretch run to keep the team on the bubble, and a change in coaches. Past Devils teams could have crumbled amid all of this. This team survived it.

When it comes to the playoffs themselves, I do not think it is a reach to think they were clearly underdogs in every series. Each of their opponents were led by future Hall of Famers. The Devils did not have those save for a rookie named Shanahan, who was nowhere near the player he would become one day. The Isles had a young squad led by Lafontaine with three big names from their dynasty era - Potvin, Trottier, Smith - plus a division title to boast. The Capitals had Stevens, Murphy, Gartner, and Rod Langway among a solid roster of talent (Peeters!) plus a whole lot of chips on their shoulder from a rough seven-game series in the first round and past playoff failures. The Bruins had Bourque, Neely, and a very solid group of players. On paper, the Devils should have lost to these teams. During the regular season, they often did. They went 3-4 against the Isles. They went 2-5 against the Caps. They went 1-2 against the B’s. There were few expectations that this Devils team would compete with either of them in the playoffs.

But they did. They took down the Isles. They took down the Capitals. They were a game away from doing it to the Bruins. All in games loaded with penalties and some major swings along the way. Sean Burke did have some rough nights, but when he was on, he was on. Sundstrom, MacLean, and Johnson absolutely shined in the playoffs as their sticks got hotter and Sundstrom set a mark that only Mario Lemieux has since tied. Tom Kurvers was also very productive with six goals and fifteen points; only Johnson, Sundstrom, and MacLean scored more goals than him. It took a little time for the top line, but Muller, Verbeek, and Broten came through. Claude Loiselle chipped in some important points amid his defensive work. Doug Brown put up five goals out of his six points. Bruce Driver was also frequently involved from the blueline with ten points. When Bob Sauve spelled Burke for a game here and there, he did well. This was a team that made a point of it to show their opponents that they were not just happy to be here. They were not just pleased with making it. They wanted to make some noise and they made a lot of it by taking down two bigger teams and nearly taking down a third. They punched well above their weight. So much so that the it would not be until 1994 that the Devils would even match how far this team would go.

Still, by anyone’s definition, the Devils were an underdog all season long and in the 1988 playoffs and went on to make history that is still appreciated to this day. Whether it is from MacLean’s OT winner in Chicago, the 10-4 game, or even Schoenfeld spitting verbals at Koharski. But it was unexpected as much as it was successful.

In my view, the 1987-88 Devils are the best representation as underdogs in franchise history. Sure, there were shorter moments that stick out. Like the 1995 Devils in the Stanley Cup Finals, or the 2000 team that came back from a 3-1 series deficit to eliminate the Flyers. Those were definitely unexpected; but those were just series. The 1987-88 team were underdogs throughout the whole campaign. They barely made the postseason and they stunned two opponents and took a third to the brink. Players who had tough seasons rose up in the playoffs. A rookie goalie established himself and would go on to have a long NHL career. Schoenfeld demonstrated he could coach as part of a long career of his own. Lou showed the league that he was not to be underestimated. A lot came out from this season. Even though the New Jersey Devils did not follow this run up with a successful season, they were not going back to the dark days of the early 1980s either. More than just exceeding expectations in 1988, they set the stage for a better future of Devils hockey. That is massive and, to me, that puts this squad ahead of any other in franchise history of being the best underdog.

Your Take

Now that you know you know which season and playoff run best represented an underdog mentality in Devils franchise history, I want to know your take. Do you agree it was the 1987-88 Devils? If not, which season represents the Devils being underdogs in your view? If you remember the team in that season, then what are your memories of that season? Who stuck out to you from the 1987-88 season or the 1988 playoff run? Please leave your thoughts about the Devils being underdogs and the 1987-88 season and playoffs in the comments.

I used Hockey-Reference throughout this post, so a big thank you to them for being a premier resource for past rosters and box scores. Thank you for reading.