April 26, 2012; Sunrise, FL, USA; Officials separate Florida Panthers right wing Scottie Upshall (19) and New Jersey Devils center Adam Henrique (14) in the second period of game seven of the 2012 Eastern Conference quarterfinals at BankAtlantic Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-US PRESSWIRE
In the playoffs, there's always an unexpected hero. A player who steps up for their team, finding the key scoring touch or making the big save to steal a game or a series.
For the New Jersey Devils, there are multiple heroes. The fourth line stepped up in their Eastern Conference quarterfinals series, scoring key goals and allowing coach Peter DeBoer to depend less on the top line. But they weren't the only ones - three rookies in particular have played key roles, and were integral in pushing New Jersey into the second round.
Adam Henrique, Peter Harrold and Stephen Gionta each had an important impact during the Eastern Conference quarterfinals win over the Florida Panthers. Each showed they're no longer rookie skaters - they're important pieces needed to make a deep postseason run.
Henrique's influence is the most obvious one. The rookie center, who came from a minor-league demotion to become a Calder Trophy finalist, scored the game-winning goal early Friday morning, ending the Devils opening series in double overtime. He also opened the scoring in Game 7, deflecting a puck past Jose Theodore in the first period. Those two goals were his first of the series, but the rookie proved to be an anchor on the third line. His impact was also felt in the Games 6 and 7, when DeBoer sent him out for important faceoffs late in games.
DeBoer said Henrique, a two-time Memorial Cup winner, knows how to rise to the occasion in big games.
"He's one of those guys that raises his game when the game is on the line," the Devils coach told Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record. "We saw it early in the season with some overtime goals, some shootout goals. He seems to have that characteristic."
Harrold and Gionta aren't marquee names, but they both left their mark on the first round. Harrold supplanted fellow rookie defenseman Adam Larsson in the lineup, bumping the top draft pick to the press box. He collected three assists in the first round, tied for second on the team in that category.
Gionta, the younger brother of former Devil Brian Gionta, helped make the fourth line dangerous. He scored two goals in the first round - including a key tally in Game 7 - and finished tied with skaters like Zach Parise and Patrik Elias. After losing Jacob Josefson, Gionta got another opportunity. And he's taken full advantage.
"Opportunities come and look at Stevie Gionta," Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello told Gulitti. "Who a month ago would say he would have two goals, and key goals, in the playoffs? It's staying ready to do those things whoever it is. Your best players have to be your best players to keep you at the level you have to be at, but your role players will be deciding players without being noticed sometimes. And sometimes they get big goals."\
Despite the fact that those three players are in their first NHL seasons, New Jersey no longer considers them rookies.