Stephen Gionta is back to business with the New Jersey Devils after playing in Albany (AHL) during the lockout.
Just ask his head coach.
“I can’t say I expected it,” said Devils head coach Peter DeBoer at NJ.com. “He spent the year in the minors, otherwise we would’ve had him up earlier. He made a believer out of me in the playoffs. He’s picked up where he left off."
Gionta scored his first goal of the 2013 regular season, and just the second of his NHL career, in Friday's 3-2 overtime win over the Washington Capitals at the Prudential Center. His first came in the season finale last year against Ottawa, also in Newark.
Anyone who watched the NHL playoffs last year knows that Gionta was a key cog in the Devils machine that came within two victories of the franchise's fourth title.
Gionta paired with Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier to form a highly effective fourth line, with Gionta tallying three goals and four assists for seven points in 24 postseason contests while also helping to check opposing top lines.
Gionta played with Albany (AHL) during the lockout, where he collected six goals and 10 assists for 16 points in 56 outings. Though he'll never be confused scoringwise with his older brother Brian, a fellow Boston College four-year letter winner and now captain of the Montreal Canadiens, the younger Gionta has chipped in where it counts.
On Friday night, No. 11 helped get the puck out of the Devils zone on the right-wing boards and headmanned the puck cross-ice to Jacob Josefson. The Rochester native then raced into the offensive zone, where he got the puck back from Josefson and wristed it past Michal Neuvirth to put New Jersey up by a goal.
"Josefson made an unbelievable play and I had the easy job to put it on net and it went in," said Gionta, 29, to Jim Hauge of The Sports Xchange (h/t Yahoo.com). "It's always exciting to help the team out. This was a big confidence booster for all of us, because we gave up the lead and still won the game.
The Devils went up 2-0 on a Patrik Elias marker in the second stanza and then withstood a two-goal third period by the Caps before Ilya Kovalchuk won it in sudden death to lift New Jersey to a 3-0-0 start, its best since its final Stanley Cup championship campaign of 2002-03.
The Devils can thank their current mighty mite for getting the ball—or puck—rolling last night. He surely doesn't play like his 5'7", 180-pound frame might suggest.
“His best characteristic is his work ethic," said DeBoer. "He’s got a Zach Parise-type work ethic. I don’t think anyone’s told him he’s five-foot-seven or five-foot-eight. He’s the smallest guy on the ice and it doesn’t matter to him.”
Just ask his team.