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Greatly Improved Devils Still Find Kings Tough at Home, Take 2-2 Tie

November 30, 1987|JERRY CROWE | Times Staff Writer

Unlike some of their brethren from the Garden State--Frank Sinatra and Bruce Springsteen come to mind--the New Jersey Devils are an act that hasn't taken well to the road.

The Devils' 13-8-3 start is the best in franchise history and is the talk of the National Hockey League. But outside of East Rutherford, they're 3-7-2.

This may be a coming-of-age season for the young Devils, but apparently they haven't come far enough yet to beat the Kings at the Forum.

The teams played to a 2-2 tie Sunday night before a crowd of 7,692, smallest of the season for the Kings.

In more than 13 seasons since it entered the league in the 1974-75 season as the Kansas City Scouts, the franchise is 1-21-5 in the Forum.

The Devils, who lost a 2-1 lead when Jimmy Carson scored for the Kings 40 seconds into the third period, have improved each of the last three seasons, but few expected them to shoot to the upper reaches of the Patrick Division, as they've done in the last two months.

As the Kansas City Scouts from 1974 to 1976 and the Colorado Rockies until 1982, the franchise never had a winning season. And the losing continued in New Jersey, where the franchise has finished last or next to last 12 times in 13 seasons.

In fact, since its inception, the franchise has the worst winning percentage in professional sports.

Yes, worse than the Clippers'.

Last season, the Devils' 29-45-6 record represented a five-point improvement over 1985-86 and a 23-point jump from 1983-84, but still tied Buffalo for worst in the NHL.

And their goals-against average of 4.56 last season also was the worst in the league.

But the Devils, once decried by Wayne Gretzky for "ruining hockey" and for "putting a Mickey Mouse operation on the ice," are now challenging the New York Islanders for the division lead.

The tie moved them within two points of the Islanders.

Attendance is up almost 3,000 a game, and the Devils have yet to play the first of four home dates with the New York Rangers, whose presence at the Meadowlands all but guarantees a sellout.

They're 10-1-1 in Brendan Byrne Arena, 2-0 against Edmonton and, despite their record, actually haven't played poorly on the road. They lost, 2-1, at Montreal and on Long Island, and were beaten in overtime at Hartford.

Their success can be attributed, they say, to a new commitment to defense, a willingness to be patient and allow their draft choices to mature and some insightful moves by General Manager Lou Lamoriello, who was hired last April after coaching hockey for 15 years at Providence College before becoming athletic director in 1982.

Lamoriello, who replaced Max McNab, who was kicked upstairs to vice president, signed on some enforcer types to protect the Devils' top scorers, Kirk Muller and Pat Verbeek.

One brought in was Jim Korn, a 6-foot 4-inch left wing who "demands a lot of respect," said goaltender Alain Chevrier, who is 11-6-2. "We don't want Kirk Muller fighting. We don't want Pat Verbeek fighting. Jim Korn is here to prevent other teams from taking advantage of those guys."

The Devils also grew tired of teams taking advantage of them to score easy goals. Patrik Sundstrom was acquired from the Vancouver Canucks to help shore up their defense.

"But what it really boils down to is, our players are sold on the fact that playing good defensively is the way to win," Coach Doug Carpenter said.

In their first 20 games, the Devils gave up only 59 goals. They allowed 20 in their next three, but tightened up defensively against the Kings, who scored both their goals on power plays.

The Devils aren't taking anything for granted, though. Even in lean times, they prided themselves on their work ethic, and that hasn't changed.

"We still haven't proven a damn thing," Chevrier said. "I won't feel comfortable until we clinch a playoff spot."

That would be a first for the Devils, who have never had a winning season.

Carpenter, though, is so convinced that the Devils have arrived that he has said he probably will be fired if they don't reach the playoffs this season.

"I don't think there's any limit to what this team can do," Lamoriello said. "I don't think I would have left what I did if I didn't think there was a great chance of winning here."

King Notes

The Devils got first-period goals from Bruce Driver and Aaron Broten after Luc Robitaille had given the Kings a 1-0 lead on a power-play goal. . . . Each team had one shot on goal in the overtime. . . . The Kings are 0-0-4 in overtime games. . . . Dave Taylor beat New Jersey goaltender Alain Chevrier with 17:15 left in the second period, but the goal was disallowed because the Kings were called for being offsides. . . . "I was happy with our game tonight from the point of view that we were determined," King Coach Mike Murphy said. "If we're going to be a better team, we've got to play like that every night." . . . The Kings had allowed four or more goals in each of their last 13 games. . . . The only win at the Forum for the Scouts/Rockies/Flames came on Nov. 19, 1985. . . . Bob Carpenter did not have a point for the first time in 12 games.

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