- Scott Burnside, NHL
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The Devils' best player is set to become an unrestricted free agent in July, so his future lurks around every corner, hangs in the air, is a shadow just out of eyeshot as the Devils continue their deepest playoff run in almost a decade. But regardless of whether these are the final days of his tenure as a Devil, Parise will not have cheated the Devils and their fans out of anything.
All this was brought into focus with a virtuoso performance in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals Monday night. Parise set up what would be the Devils' winning goal, scored a crucial power-play goal and then iced a 4-1 victory with an empty-net goal.
"That's why he's wearing the 'C.' He leads by example, and no one was happy with the result after Game 3 but no one was frustrated, everyone was just left [with] a bad taste. But he comes out and he's our best player," said New Jersey defenseman Bryce Salvador, who scored the game's first goal.
Parise was so disappointed with his play and the play of the team after Saturday's 3-0 loss to the New York Rangers that he declined to talk to the media.
That in and of itself was hardly cause for presses to stop anywhere, but Parise is so selfless with his time that it spoke volumes about his level of frustration.
He had not scored in five straight games and added a lonely assist during that time.
His team had played well for long stretches in the first three games of this series against the Rangers but had been shut out twice and was in danger of letting the conference finals slip from its grasp.
Maybe he should duck the media more often, as Parise rededicated himself Monday night and was the best player on the ice by a country mile as the Devils evened the series at two wins apiece.
Parise's play -- dogged and relentless from the moment the puck dropped in Game 4 -- stood in stark contrast to a Rangers team that unraveled in the face of what was the most complete game presented by an opponent this spring.
In fact, it's not a stretch to suggest that Parise's play put the Rangers in a position in which they were primed to melt down.
The Devils struck first in Game 4 when Salvador notched his third of the postseason through a maze of bodies. Less than four minutes later, it was Parise who put his seal on the game. Charging down the right side, he blew past defenseman Michael Del Zotto, then fed a terrific pass to Travis Zajac, who blasted a shot past Henrik Lundqvist to give the Devils a 2-0 lead.
"You knew it was just a matter of time. He doesn't take a game off. He's a competitor. He knows how to score. He goes to the tough areas so it was just a matter of time, and for him to get rewarded tonight, it was nice and I'm sure it felt good for him," Zajac said.
Although the Rangers were better in the second period, it was Parise who would send the Rangers off the rails in the third period, scoring a power-play goal just four seconds after Derek Stepan had been sent off for high-sticking.
The goal marked just the second power-play goal of the series for the Devils, and while they would later squander a lengthy 5-on-3, the goal was important to the psyche of the team.
"The looks have been there, we just haven't made the right plays when it's there. Tonight we were able to get one on the power play, and it makes a difference. You've either got to score or get at least some momentum off your power play, and tonight we got one," Parise said.
After that, the third period degenerated into a festival of penalties as the Rangers were assessed 34 minutes of penalties in the final frame, including 14 minutes to Mike Rupp, who gave Martin Brodeur a cuff to the head, a play that led to some serious jawing between the two coaches.
"This isn't about John [Tortorella] and I. This is about the guys on the ice. So I don't have anything to say about that," New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer said.
But he was happy to talk about the play of his captain.
After Game 3, DeBoer had insisted he wasn't worried at all about Parise or his play and in a way predicted exactly the kind of game Parise delivered Monday night.
"Your best players have to be your best players. I know it's cliche, but it's critical this time of year. And I knew he would respond. I knew it was a matter of time," DeBoer said.
In fact, the coach took some of the blame for Parise's offensive sluggishness, saying he took too long to make line adjustments.
Parise played mostly in Game 4 with Dainius Zubrus and Zajac, a trio that had played together at times in the past.
Certainly netminder Brodeur liked what he saw.
"I think Zach's been playing really well. He's been on the puck a lot. It's tough when you don't find the back of the net or you have a hard time scoring, not just individually but as a team," Brodeur said.
"When you come through and score big goals at the right time of the game also, I'm sure it feels really good for the offensive guy. At least the dividends are collected here."
Asked about the transformation, Parise insisted that what happened after Game 3 was no big deal.
"I don't know. I think some people are making a big deal out of nothing really. But it was the same, just the puck happened to go in tonight. That's the difference," Parise said.
"These games are so tight, and when you get the opportunities, you want to put them in. Last game we didn't, I didn't, and tonight they went in."
Except that's not exactly true.
Maybe they went in for Parise because he's exactly the kind of player for whom these things happen at these critical times.
Maybe he simply works and plays the right way to find himself on the right side of that fine line.
In the end, guys like Parise rarely have to ask themselves whether they've done enough, regardless of which side of that line they stand on.
The Devils and their fans know that very well. They just hope they're not seeing the last of it here.