The smallest guy on the ice made the biggest play of the night, and perhaps of the series.
With the Devils reeling after blowing an early 3-0 lead against the Rangers Wednesday night, Stephen Gionta made a perfect pass from behind the goal line to Ryan Carter in front of the net for the go-ahead score, and the Devils went on to win, 5-3.
The goal bookended Gionta opening the scoring by putting a rebound past Henrik Lundqvist only 2:43 into the game, and made the unheralded, 5-7, 185-pound fourth-liner the unlikely star of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. He helped put the Devils one home victory away from advancing to the Stanley Cup finals.
Until recently, Gionta, a 28-year-old from Rochester, was best known as the brother of the Canadiens' captain, Brian Gionta, who won the Cup as a Devil in 2003
Gionta had spent the entire season with Albany of the AHL before joining the Devils for their final regular-season game, giving him a career total of 13 games (and one goal) in the regular season in the NHL. He now has played all 17 games in the playoffs as part of the Devils' highly effective fourth line, recording three goals and three assists.
"I can't really explain it in words,'' he said afterward. "It's just fun to be a part of this right now and I'm just trying to enjoy every moment.''
After taking the big lead midway through the first period, the Devils watched the Rangers dominate most of the rest of the game, tying the score 17 seconds into the final period.
Then came Carter's tiebreaker with 4:24 left, on a play initially set up by Iyla Kovalchuk's hard forecheck in the corner.
"Kovy did a great job getting it on the forecheck,'' Gionta said. "The puck was just sitting there, I closed my eyes and threw it out to Carts.''
Did he really close his eyes? "No, I didn't close my eyes,'' he said, laughing. "I saw him coming down the middle and was hoping he was still alone.''
Gionta did his damage in a mere 9:49 of ice time. His achievements did not surprise teammates.
"He's been a great player for us,'' said Travis Zajac, who scored the third Devils goal. "He plays important minutes. He's always on the forecheck with his speed and it wears on teams and he's dangerous out there.''
The Devils, who had lamented losing Game 3 despite outplaying the Rangers, happily accepted their good fortune in winning Game 5.
Patrik Elias said the Devils "stole'' one.
"It wasn't the prettiest,'' said Zach Parise, who scored an empty net goal for the second consecutive game. "I think it was probably the longest stretch maybe all playoffs that we haven't been sharp.
"It wasn't our best game and we snuck out of here with a win. That's all that matters.''
Said coach Peter DeBoer: "It was an adventure."