On This Date in Sports April 3, 1988: Rise of the Devils

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

The New Jersey Devils make the playoffs for the first time, thanks to an overtime goal by John MacLean in the final game of the season against the Chicago Blackhawks. The Devils needed a win to finish ahead in fourth place with the tiebreaker against the New York Rangers. MacLean, who tied the game in the third period, gives the Devils a 4-3 win when he puts home a rebound at 2:21 of overtime.

Arriving in the Garden State in 1982, the New Jersey Devils were unquestionably the worst franchise in the NHL. Starting as the Kansas City Scouts in 1974, where they played just two seasons before becoming the Colorado Rockies for six seasons, the Devils franchise had just one playoff appearance in their first 13 years as an NHL franchise. That being in 1978 as the Rockies when the Philadelphia Flyers swept them in two straight games.

The Devils hit rock bottom in 1983 when Wayne Gretzky despairingly called them Mickey Mouse Franchise. Before the 1987/88 season, the Devils made a big change hiring Lou Lamoriello as their new General Manager. Lamoriello had previously served as coach of Providence College for 19 seasons. The Devils played well early in the season but began to struggle in December, leading to coach Doug Carpenter's dismissal on January 25th.

Jim Schoenfeld would take over behind the Devils bench as the Devils played slightly better but remained at the bottom of the Patrick Division. Following the Calgary Olympics, the Devils got another boost when Sean Burke, who won a Silver Medal with Team Canada, made his debut. Burke started 11 games down the stretch, posting a record of 10-1, as the Devils posted a 10-2-1 record in their final 13 games.

In a tightly bunched Patrick Division, the Devils entered the final game of the season against the Chicago Blackhawks, needing a win to finish in fourth place for the last playoff spot. The New York Rangers had finished their season at 36-34-10 with 82 points. The Devils entered the final game of the season in sixth place, with 80 points, two points back of the Rangers for the last playoff spot with a record of 37-36-6. With a win, the Devils would tie the Rangers in points but take the playoff spot due to having more wins.

After a scoreless first period at Chicago Stadium, the Devils took a 1-0 lead against Chicago Blackhawks thanks to a goal from Ken Daneyko midway through the second period. The Blackhawks, though, rallied to take a 2-1 lead on goals by Denis Savard and Dirk Graham that came 35 seconds apart. New Jersey tied the game late in the second period on Pat Verbeek’s 46th goal of the season, which at the time was the franchise record. The score remained tied until Troy Murray scored at 9:27 of the third period to give Chicago a 3-2 lead. The Devils, though, answered two and half minutes later on a goal by John MacLean. From there, the game went to overtime tied 3-3, with the Devils knowing a tie would do them no good. Throwing all the pressure of a desperate team, MacLean made a big play to keep the puck in the zone. Patrick Sunstrom took the puck from MacLean and set up Joe Cirella to get take a shot on goal. The puck was stopped by Chicago goalie Darren Pang, but John MacLean was in the right spot to put home the rebound and give the Devils a 4-3 win in overtime to clinch a playoff spot.

After finishing the season with a record of 38-36-6, the New Jersey Devils continued their torrid run, upsetting the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals to reach the Wales Conference Finals. They battled the Boston Bruins before losing a seven-game series.

Over the next 25 years, the Devils, who were one of the worst franchises in the NHL, became one of the best as they missed the playoffs just three times. Meanwhile, the Devils would win the Stanley Cup three times while playing in the Stanley Cup Final five times.