- Scott Burnside, NHL
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NEW YORK -- As the New Jersey Devils fell into that darkest of playoff holes, a 3-0 series deficit, it was hard not to imagine them as they might be.
Captain Zach Parise is almost certainly headed to free agency in July and likely off to a different chapter in his career with another NHL club.
Martin Brodeur, at 40, is still playing like a kid but the end of his Hall of Fame career is, if not in sight, then around the corner.
They represent two cornerstone players whose absence would force a redefinition of the team's identity.
Given all that, you wonder who might step forward, who will step into the breach as the leader of the next generation on a team whose history includes some of the greatest clutch leaders in the game.
Watching Adam Henrique take a late-game pass off his skate and move it seamlessly to the blade of his stick, then just as seamlessly whistle it past Los Angeles Kings netminder Jonathan Quick, and you don't wonder quite as much.
"He's a heck of a hockey player. He's a person no matter what line he plays on he always does something, whether it's a blocked shot, a big play. He's scored some big goals for us this season and hopefully continues to do it," linemate David Clarkson said after the Devils had blunted the Kings' assault on their first-ever Stanley Cup championship Wednesday night.
"He's a great kid. He works hard every day. You never see him down. He's always that level-headed kid. So it's great to see."
The Kings still lead the Stanley Cup finals 3-1, but Henrique assured his teammates of at least one more home date and forced the Kings into one more trip on the road, where they have been a perfect 10-0 this postseason.
Game 5 is set for Newark Saturday night.
Henrique is a typical Devil. He's not a high draft pick, having been selected with the 82nd overall pick in 2008. He didn't even make the team out of training camp and spent a brief time with the team's AHL affiliate in Albany before an injury to Jacob Josefson opened up a spot for him with the big club.
He made the most of it, though, scoring 16 times in the regular season and earning a nomination for rookie of the year.
Head coach Peter DeBoer developed so much trust in Henrique this season that he used him as a center on the team's top line. Henrique also earned time on both special teams.
"It's in his character to rise to the occasion... he has that special quality," DeBoer said Thursday in Newark.
"I haven't seen a performance like that from a rookie since I can remember. We wouldn't be here without him."
Henrique's teammate Dainius Zubrus agreed: "There's not many rookies that play power play, penalty kill and that have the hockey smarts to do that. He's one of those guys."
This spring, though, Henrique has added "hero" to his résumé.
Wednesday's goal was his fourth of the postseason and three of those have been game winners. The first two came in overtime but none was bigger than Wednesday's.
"You know, everybody wants to be out there in those situations. You want to be counted on by your teammates, your coaches. It's nice that they have that trust in me to put me out there in those certain times of the game," Henrique said of his big moment.
"I just play. I'm not thinking about what's going to happen if I score, if I don't score. I'm just a kid playing hockey, having some fun."
Former NHLer turned broadcast analyst Keith Jones has been impressed with Henrique's poise this spring.
"You don't feel like you're talking to a 22-year-old young man," Jones told ESPN.com Thursday.
"That kind of tells you where he's at."
As for becoming the kind of player and person that could someday assume a leadership role on a team that has counted Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Ken Daneyko, Patrik Elias, Parise and Brodeur as "go-to guys," Jones believes Henrique has that kind of potential.
"I do see it," Jones said. "He seems to have, I think they call it the 'it' factor.
"I haven't seen him change his game once throughout the playoffs. There's a real discipline to his game that is very Devils-like."
Henrique's heroics represented the first point of the finals for him, but it's interesting that when the Devils absolutely needed a big goal it didn't come from Parise or Ilya Kovalchuk -- who have combined for one empty-net goal between them in four games -- but the youngster from a small agricultural community in southwestern Ontario.
"I think he's grown a lot as a player. I think from his junior career, he scored a lot of goals all the time. These playoffs, it's obvious the goals he has scored are important goals for this team," said Brodeur, who has seen more than a few players come and go in his career.
"His head is up. His skating ability. The way he handles the puck, protects the puck. It's pretty amazing to see at that young age to be able to come in and really be an impact the way that he is. Even though he doesn't score all the time, he does a lot of good things on the ice."
While most are counting the Devils out, Henrique believes the Devils are not ready for their season to end.
"We believe we have the personnel to complete the comeback," Henrique said Thursday. "There's a
lot of people that don't believe we can do it, but we're not worried
about what other people think. We have confidence in our group. ... We're fully prepared to do it."
No matter how this plays out for the Devils, Henrique has revealed himself this spring as a player that the franchise and its fans can hang their hat on going forward, no matter what other changes may be afoot.
Watching Adam Henrique take a late-game pass off his skate and move it seamlessly to the blade of his stick, then just as seamlessly whistle it past Los Angeles Kings netminder Jonathan Quick and you don't wonder quite as much about the future of the Devils, writes Scott Burnside.