There's a new Gionta in town
NEWARK, N.J. -- It is both a testament to his own determination and a statement on the very nature of the New Jersey Devils organization that Stephen Gionta is not only playing every night but is making a difference in these playoffs.
It's hard to imagine that Gionta would have been given the opportunity to live out his hockey dreams anywhere else in the National Hockey League.
Like his brother Brian, who happens to be the captain of the Montreal Canadiens, Stephen is small of stature at 5-foot-7 and 185 pounds. Unlike his brother, who won a Stanley Cup in New Jersey in 2003 after the Devils drafted him with the 82nd overall pick in 1998, Stephen Gionta is not blessed with an abundance of natural skill.
But whatever he may lack in innate skill or size, the 28-year-old has more than made up for it in good old-fashioned sweat and hard work and an attitude that has helped carry him through more than a few disappointments along the way.
After spending all season in Albany as captain of the Devils' AHL affiliate, Gionta got the call before Game 82 of the regular season to report to the Devils for their final game. He scored the winning goal in that regular-season finale and was told at the time that he would likely stick around for the playoffs with Jacob Josefson out with an injury.
Gionta has done far more than that.
Playing mostly with Steve Bernier and Ryan Carter, Gionta has helped form a dynamic fourth line that has been crucial to the Devils' success as they've advanced to their first Eastern Conference finals since 2003.
The trio has disrupted opponents with a vigorous forecheck, has drawn penalties and has provided unexpected offense. In some instances -- such as Game 3's 3-0 loss to New York that gave the Rangers a 2-1 series lead -- it has been the best unit on the ice for the Devils.
Gionta said their game plan is pretty basic: go out and work hard and wear down the other team as much as they can.
"Keep it simple," said Gionta, who has registered two goals and two assists this spring.
Although there have been plenty of disappointments throughout his career -- every time training camp ended with a trip to the AHL, for instance -- Gionta said he's tried to keep perspective on the situation.
"You always have to stay positive," he said. "You're still playing a game for a living."
If it weren't for hockey, he'd have to contemplate another line of work.
"That's what keeps you going," he said. "It's been tough, but that comes with the business aspect of the game."
Undrafted out of Boston College, Gionta signed with the Devils and spent four years toiling with the Devils' AHL affiliate, eventually assuming the captaincy of the team. Last season marked the first time since signing with the Devils that the phone rang in the minors asking for Gionta to join the big club. He played in 12 games registering zero points, although he did get to play against his brother Brian, the first time the two played a game against each other.
It was a special night for both brothers and there is no doubt that Brian's experience in New Jersey was crucial to his brother getting the opportunity he has here.
President and general manager Lou Lamoriello was quite candid in saying he never would have given Stephen a shot if it weren't for the team's experience with Brian.
"It's such a solid family. If we hadn't had Brian we probably wouldn't have given Stephen a chance," Lamoriello told ESPN.com.
"You know the character. You know their makeup."
When Jacobsen got hurt, Lamoriello said there was discussion about which player to bring up, but in the end there was agreement that Gionta was their man.
"He was the right player to bring in at the time," Lamoriello said of the youngest of three Gionta brothers. "He's earned everything he's got. This hasn't been a gift or a favor. He's earned the ice time the coaches give him.
"Stephen's here because he deserves to be here."
There is little doubt about that, but the Gionta case also epitomizes the Devils and the strong sense of loyalty that runs throughout the organization.
It hasn't always meant success on the ice, but it has in many ways defined the franchise. Lamoriello likes what he likes and goes out of his way to ensure that his team is filled with those kinds of players.
"He gave me an opportunity out of college six years ago when no else would," Stephen Gionta said.
"He has given me the opportunity to fulfill a dream that you can play in the NHL. These are memories I'll carry with me the rest of my life."
Both brothers understand the unique situation the Devils have provided to their family.
"Lou and the Devils obviously gave me my shot," Brian Gionta told ESPN.com this week. "Lou showed a lot of loyalty that way. They definitely gave [Stephen] his shot."
The brothers talk often, every day or every other day.
And it has been a curious role reversal given that it has always been Brian working his way through the playoff grind either with the Devils or Canadiens, while Stephen has been watching the Stanley Cup playoffs unfold from the outside.
"Obviously it's great to see him getting rewarded because he's worked so hard," Brian Gionta said.
"It's been an uphill battle most of his career. I don't know if I've been helpful at all. I've always tried to be there for him. Coming out of training camp has always been the worst time for him. In those times you just try and be there for him."
Stephen Gionta is trying to balance enjoying these moments for what they are, a rare and unexpected opportunity, against staying focused on what got him here.
Brian, whose wife just gave birth to their third child, and the Giontas' parents were on hand to watch Stephen play on Saturday. And Stephen's wife and two children (a 2-year-old and a 3-month-old) joined him in Newark early in the playoffs.
"It's just fun to be a part of," said Stephen Gionta.
It's been nine years since the last Devils team -- one that included Brian Gionta -- lifted the Stanley Cup. Stephen had just finished his first year at Boston College at the time, and while he attended Brian's day with the Cup at the family home in Rochester, N.Y., he held with tradition and did not touch the trophy.
Does he let himself imagine what it would be like to provide a bookend Stanley Cup experience and complete the Gionta/New Jersey championship circle?
"Not as much as I thought I would," he said. "You're really staying in the moment. You don't really look ahead."