New Jersey Devils forward Stephen Gionta played in exactly one game in the regular season this year. He was called up to step into the lineup for David Clarkson on the final day of the season, April 7, against the Ottawa Senators. He scored his first NHL goal that afternoon, but at the time, no one would have guessed that Gionta, the Albany Devils all-time leader in games played, would play on a line that would be such a big part of the deep Stanley Cup Playoff run New Jersey is on.
Fast forward to Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, and the Devils were locked in a 2-2 series tie with the Rangers. They had been shut out in both losses, and needed to come up big in the first period. Enter Stephen Gionta.
In the opening minutes, with the Devils once again establishing a murderous forecheck, Gionta slipped into the crease and grabbed a rebound of a Mark Fayne shot, beating Henrik Lundqvist to give New Jersey a 1-0 lead. The Devils added two more goals in the first, but found themselves tied 3-3 with New York as the third period progressed. Then, Gionta and his linemates struck again.
With just under 4:30 left in regulation, Gionta picked up a puck knocked loose by a stinging Ilya Kovalchuk forecheck, centered it to a streaking Ryan Carter, and suddenly the Devils had a 4-3 lead. The game-winner was a prime example of the depth, experience, and energy that New Jersey is playing with, and the reason they’re now one win from advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals.
It seems throughout this playoff run, there has been a new hero every game for the Devils, but the fourth line, consisting of Carter, Gionta and Steve Bernier, has been the most pleasant surprise. Their combined eight goals and eight assists has opponents scrambling to neutralize them and head coach Pete DeBoer shaking his head, but certainly not complaining.
“Our depth guys were outstanding tonight,” said DeBoer, after the Game 5 win. “Our whole fourth line, I thought they were the story tonight. Gionta gets a goal, Carter gets a goal, Bernier gives us some big minutes. They really have given us momentum throughout the playoffs.”
Surely, DeBoer couldn’t have planned on the fourth line being this good, could he?
“I wasn’t expecting this,” DeBoer said. “We just wanted for me to feel confident to play them. They’re all very smart, dependable hockey players. We scored the goal with three minutes left in the game and they’re on the ice. I think that shows the confidence I have in them.”
The Devils’ depth extends past being able to rely on fourth line skaters at critical times, though. Their offense is getting timely contributions from unlikely sources like Bryce Salvador, and even superstars like Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise are pitching in on defense and on the forecheck, doing the dirty work to create scoring chances for their teammates. The fact that New Jersey has developed into the type of team in which any player on the roster can step up and be a factor has to continue to trouble Rangers coach John Tortorella.
The Devils will attempt to close out the series and advance to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 2003 Friday night in Newark.