NEW YORK -- At some point, it's time to expect the unexpected, to look at the player who entered the postseason with one NHL game this year and see not a fourth-line plug but an integral piece of a winning puzzle. On a team that boasts such offensive talent as sniper Ilya Kovalchuk and workhorse Zach Parise, it would be easy to see players like Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier as bit players -- perhaps heroes for an evening. But night in and night out this spring, their impact continues to be felt, and on the backs of their fourth line, New Jersey pulled within a win of the Eastern Conference title by defeating the Rangers 5-3 at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.
The Devils' fourth line has been effective and timely. Against the Panthers during the first round, the trio chipped in six goals, often momentum-turning tallies. When the Devils buzzed by the Flyers in the second round, Gionta, Carter and Bernier were logging important minutes against one of the deepest and intimidating offenses in the league.
"I've said it all throughout the playoffs, that line has been so big for us," Parise said after the game. "Again, they came through. ...They've been such a big part of why we are where we are."
Less than three minutes into the game, Gionta shoveled a rebound behind Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist to open the scoring, another timely goal by his unit because the team that has scored first in each game of this series has gone on to win. Along with Bernier and Carter, Gionta has gained the trust of coach Pete DeBoer, who has been afforded the luxury of rolling four lines all spring. Those three Devils have combined for 16 points in these playoffs so far; they produced only 15 during the regular season.
"Our whole fourth line, I thought they were the story tonight," DeBoer said. "They really have given us momentum throughout the playoffs. And that's playoff hockey. There's always unsung heroes and guys that step up this time of year, and we've got a bunch of them."
By the third period, DeBoer was looking for an offensive spark to revive his team, which had lulled itself soon after jumping to a 3-0 first period lead. With just under five minutes left in a tied game, DeBoer sent Carter and Gionta on the ice with Kovalchuk. "I think that tells you the confidence I have in them," DeBoer said.
With Kovalchuk strong on the forecheck, canceling out Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto on the end boards, Gionta hurried a touch pass to the front of Lundqvist's net where Carter was in perfect position to bury the winner, a goal the Devils needed after allowing the Rangers back into the game. After New Jersey put in three goals on five shots in the first 10 minutes Wednesday night, New York had chipped away at the lead. Forward Brandon Prust swept a backhanded shot through Devils goalie Martin Brodeur late in the first, the Rangers' first opening-frame goal of the series. Less than a minute into the second, a bounce off New York winger Ryan Callahan's leg pulled the Rangers to within one, and just 17 seconds into the third, Marian Gaborik scored on a bad-angle shot that Brodeur apparently kicked in himself.
Though New York's goals, taken by themselves, seemed fortuitous, they were the product of a better forecheck and a better game all around. "I thought we probably played our best game of the series tonight," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "I thought we did a really good job of making plays and controlling some of the play tonight, and then I just felt we start batting around a little bit and allowed them to gain some forechecking."
The Rangers, who have struggled to generate offense all postseason -- they haven't scored more than three goals in a match since Game 1 of their first-round series against Ottawa -- worked for their chances on Wednesday night, and saw plenty as they outshot New Jersey 28-17. Perhaps as surprising as it was to see the Devils take an early 3-0 lead against Lundqvist on goals by Gionta, Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac on New Jersey's first five shots, so too was the sustained time in the offensive zone that New York was able maintain thereafter, especially in the second period. For most of the series, it has been the Devils who have applied the pressure and controlled the game, but behind the energetic play of some of their forwards, Callahan in particular, the Rangers were able to catch New Jersey on its heels.
"It wasn't the prettiest [game we've played]," Parise admitted after the game. "I think it was probably the longest stretch maybe all playoffs that we haven't been sharp or didn't forecheck properly. But again, I think they played well. They had a lot to do with that too. It wasn't our best game, but we snuck out of here with the win, and that's all that matters."
Parise and the Devils have known the feeling of losing despite a dominating effort (see: Game 3), and now, too, do the Rangers. They claim to know what to do now, thanks to the 3-2 series hole they climbed out of against the Senators in the first round. With this series returning to Newark, it'll be a matter of will on Friday night.