A compact man with curly black hair and a beard clomped through the Devils dressing room on skates after practice Saturday, stashing his black helmet in his locker before moving on to the next episode of his improbable and rollicking springtime adventure.
“How can you not enjoy this? It’s the Stanley Cup playoffs,” the man, Stephen Gionta, said. “This is every kid’s dream. If you can’t enjoy it, I don’t know what you can enjoy.”
Five weeks ago, Gionta, a 28-year-old forward, was polishing off his fifth full season with the Devils’ top farm team. He has been in the minors so long that he played for the Albany River Rats and then the Lowell Devils, who became the Albany Devils.
Until the second-year centre Jacob Josefson broke his left wrist April 3, Gionta had played in 12 NHL games, all early in the shipwreck of the Devils’ 2010-11 season, compiling no goals and no assists.
He replaced Josefson without much fanfare.
“I’m just trying to take the opportunity and run with it,” he said.
Gionta was better known, and probably still is, as the younger brother of Brian Gionta, who once scored 48 goals in a season for the Devils and is now a 33-year-old forward for the Montreal Canadiens, as well as their captain. Stephen Gionta was the brother, the farmhand.
Then he was paired on the unheralded fourth line with the grinding forwards Steve Bernier and Ryan Carter, and something clicked. All three scored goals in the first six games of the Devils’ first-round series against Florida, and Gionta scored another goal in Game 7. They hustle.
“We’re not out there to make quick hits to score goals,” Carter said. “We want to wear them down.”
Devils coach Peter DeBoer has become so comfortable with them that their ice time has increased. Gionta was not on the ice for more than nine minutes in any game of the first-round series against Florida. He played at least 11 minutes in two games in the conference semi-final series against Philadelphia.
He is plus 4 in the playoffs; Carter is plus 2, Bernier plus 1. The success that the line has had pushing the puck into opponents’ zones – and keeping it there while playing responsibly on defence – has enabled DeBoer to play his top lines less, keeping everybody fresh.
“When you roll only three lines for two and a half periods, it gets tiring,” said Zach Parise, the Devils’ captain. “The coaches are confident doing that, and we’re confident in them, too, and it’s going a long way.”
The Devils eliminated the Flyers in five games, which means that they will have had five days off between their last game and the opener of the Eastern Conference final Monday. They will have had time to prepare for an opponent that played in a Game 7 on Saturday night.
DeBoer looks smart for juggling his top three lines before the Philadelphia series to generate punishing, productive fore-checking that kept the Flyers on their heels. He also looks smart for not tinkering with his fourth line, centred by Gionta, who is generously listed at 5 feet 7 inches.
“You don’t want to look at his size,” Bernier said. “You want to look at how hard he works. It’s all about pressure. We want to pressure the other team.”
Gionta’s line did not score against the Flyers, and Bernier said the line’s scoring chances decreased, even though the three played more. But DeBoer did not sound Saturday as if he expected to use the fourth line much less in the next round.
“They’ve contributed in a positive way every night for us, and that’s been critical,” DeBoer said.
Gionta scored a goal in the Devils’ regular-season finale against Ottawa. He scored against the Panthers in Game 3, in which the Devils took a 3-0 lead but lost, 4-3. His goal midway through the second period of Game 7 gave the Devils a 2-0 lead.
He said he was not necessarily trying any harder because he caught a break while finishing out another minor-league season. The three players are trying to be responsible as they continue to play a simple style, and the coaches are rewarding them because they are good at it.
“It depends on situations, too,” said Bernier, 27, a former first-round draft choice who signed with the Devils at the end of January. “Every game, we are getting to play more and more, but you never know what to expect. We just need to do our jobs, or we won’t play.”
At practice Saturday, Gionta stepped in for a while as a point man on the penalty-killing unit assigned to harass the Devils’ second power-play unit. Gionta was thrilled just to be with the team – and he also gets to play in the games now.
Josefson, 21, skated on his own last week, and a practice jersey hung in his locker after practice Saturday – a sign, perhaps, that he may be close to returning. But he broke his collarbone earlier in the season, and the Devils do not want to rush him. They have a fallback.
“It’s been a seamless transition,” Carter said of Gionta. “Gio brings a lot of speed to this team.”
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