Devils’ Little Big Man Becomes Threat On Ice
NEW YORK -Sometimes, an innocent walk into a visitor’s lockerroom can create a myriad of dilemmas. Particularly, if the one player being sought is not well known. But, while Brian Gionta is not the most recognizable face on the New Jersey Devils, he is still relatively easy to find.
At 5’7”, 175, he immediately stands out in a room inhabited by much taller men. There is also one other thing about him that many people may not realize. After 14 games, he is also the team’s leading scorer.
Gionta has become a legitimate offensive threat because of a diligent work ethic and a willingness to take a hit. Larger, more muscular players are mere obstacles to him. And, because he must pick his spots –whether the play calls for him to dig the puck out of the corner or create havoc in front of the opposing net- he has learned to play a more efficient game.
“I’ve always had to work hard for what I got,” explained the 26 year-old Rochester native who, as a youth, gravitated toward Pat LaFontaine, another undersized American skater. “It’s no different than going into the corner and banging some bodies. If I’m against someone like [the Ottawa Senators’ 6’9”, 261 Zdeno] Chara or [the Rangers’ 6,6”, 238 Marek] Malik, I’m giving away a lot of size. I have to be smart with my hits.”
The modern game, with its multitude of rule changes designed to enhance offenses, has given him an even greater edge. “The new rules don’t hurt at all,” he smiled, after scoring two regulation goals and one shootout goal in the Devils’ 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers on Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden. “Obviously, not being able to get clutched and grabbed in the corner helps out quite a bit.
“I have to be quick. I need speed to get away from the bigger guys. But, that’s just one part of my game. I have to play the game right and take chances only when I can. And, when I can’t, I have to sit back and be patient.”
Patience, ever virtuous, is a lasting characteristic of the New Jersey system.
“They do a great job developing their young guys,” stated Gionta, who scored 123 goals and 232 points in 164 games during his four seasons at Boston College and was, subsequently, picked in the 3 rd Round [No. 82 overall] by the Devils in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft.
“I’ve learned how to play the game because I wasn’t put in a situation that, early on, I wouldn’t have been ready for. That is part of this organization’s success. As such, we gain playoff experience each year. And, with that, a chance to win.”
Gionta gives his team a chance to win nearly every time he steps onto the ice. He tallied the game’s opening goal by, first, screening goaltender Kevin Weekes and, then, deflecting Sean Brown’s laser from the right point during the Devils’ 5-on-3 power play advantage 1:40 into the second period.
Eight minutes later, a neutral zone turnover resulted in Gionta leading a two-on-one rush that concluded when his dart from the right circle beat Weekes for a 2-0 push. The goal -which boosted his team-high total to nine- allowed him to assume the lead in points  from Alexander Mogilny. By the end of the game, he had amassed 58 shots-on-goal, which is 21 more than John Madden, who has the second most on the team.
“I’ve been working hard, and trying to get some pucks on the net,” he summarized. “And they’ve been going in.”
Even before the lockout, which eradicated the 2004-05 season, his shots were going in. During the 2003-04 season, he scored 21 goals and his two-way effort earned him a +19. Subsequently, his teammates voted him the Hugh Delano Unsung Hero Award, which is named for the Hall-of-Fame hockey scribe. “Any award,” Gionta said, “that is voted on by teammates shows that they respect what a player is doing on the ice.”
However, the Rangers would erase those two goals –and gain one point in the standings- when Petr Prucha and Blair Betts forced overtime. And, when the five-minute overtime couldn’t decide the issue, a shootout ensued.
Gionta is now respected enough for what he does on the ice to be there when it matters. When Michael Nylander slipped a backhander past Scott Clemmensen, the Rangers were one save -and two very important points- away from victory.
The diminutive demon shared his thought process as he approached center ice.
As I’m coming in on him [the goalie], I’m looking to see what he’s taking away –the shot or the deke. If he’s playing back in the net, I will shoot. If he’s out a little more, I will use a fake to go around him.”
Gionta stickhandled and Weekes bit. The backhanded goal extended the shootout to a fourth player. Though it was the third time that he had beaten the Ranger goalie, there would be no hat trick, as shootout goals are not part of individual statistics.
On this day, there would be no Devil victory either, as Prucha flipped a shot through Clemmensen’s pads to end the game.
In defeat, however, one thing was clear. New Jersey has a star in the making. He may be their smallest star. But, thus far, he has shone the brightest.