The absence of their captain didn't seem to faze the New Jersey Devils as they posted a 3-2 overtime victory over the Carolina Hurricanes to take Game 3 of their Stanley Cup playoff series in Raleigh, N.C., on Sunday.
Jamie Langenbrunner was out of the lineup for the Devils but his replacement on the top line, Brian Gionta, filled in nicely by firing a goal in the Devils' victory.
Travis Zajac was the overtime hero, scoring the game winner just under five minutes into the extra period.
Zajac said his team rebounded well after its dismal extra-time performance in Game 2. In that overtime period, the Devils didn't register a shot on goal.
"In overtime, we learned from Game 2 and [had] an attitude that we were going to create some chances," Zajac said. "There's a big sigh of relief in the dressing room."
With the series tied 1-1 heading in, Sunday's contest was a case study of two hockey teams that badly wanted to win the go-ahead game.
No captain, no problem
New Jersey entered the game without Langenbrunner, who is out with a lower-body injury and didn't travel with the team to North Carolina.
Bobby Holik filled the captain's spot in the lineup but Rolston took on his vacancy on the Devils' top line. Paired with Zach Parise and Zajac, the trio scored the two goals that book-ended the night.
They opened the scoring 6:04 in when Zajac fed the puck to Paul Martin, who fired a shot from the point that was expertly tipped by Parise and sent between the legs of Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward.
The Hurricanes wasted no time in replying. Twenty-one seconds later, Carolina's Scott Walker positioned himself behind the New Jersey net and had enough time to shovel a pass in the slot to teammate Jussi Jokinen.
Jokinen missed on the shot attempt, but Hurricanes left-winger Ryan Bayda swooped in to beat Brodeur on the glove side and knot the game at 1-1.
Minutes after helping his team tie it, Bayda put them at the disadvantage after clipping Devils defenceman Bryce Salvador in the face with his stick in front of the New Jersey net and taking a double-minor penalty.
The Devils used the extended advantage to blast more shots like the one Parise scored on — point shots with lots of traffic in front of Ward — but the Hurricanes went the distance, thanks to some clutch goaltending and a few blocked shots.
A costly mental lapse by the Hurricanes defence with less than 10 seconds to go in the opening frame had put the Devils ahead 2-1.
Carolina's Joe Corvo, pressured by Brendan Shanahan behind the Hurricanes net, coughed up the puck to Gionta, who was waiting at the faceoff circle. He beat Ward by sending the puck five-hole to put the Devils out front once more as they headed into the first intermission.
Penalty woes for the Devils
The Devils got into penalty trouble in the second period, rattling off four straight minors.
Their third penalty of the middle frame was a Bobby Holik high-sticking call at 12:21, but it was quickly turned into a 51-second five-on-three chance for the Hurricanes when Paul Martin joined Holik in the box to serve a slashing minor.
Martin Brodeur came up big for New Jersey during the penalties when, while screened, he made a save off his shoulder to stymie the Hurricanes' best chance with the two-man advantage. Brodeur made 28 saves in the victory.
But just seconds after Martin's penalty expired, Carolina's Chad Larose tied the game when he converted a slap pass by Patrick Eaves to beat Brodeur between the wickets, and the game remained tied into the second intermission.
The goal was the first career playoff tally for Larose.
The third period saw both teams playing tight, defensive hockey, with plenty of blocked shots and both teams exercising more discipline. The lone penalty of the frame was a roughing minor taken by the Devils' Colin White at the 7:30 mark.
The only chance that the Hurricanes managed on the power play was a point shot by Corvo that was easily handled by Brodeur.
The Devils' best chance in the third was with about six minutes remaining when Gionta whistled a shot off the post.
In overtime, the Devils' top line struck again. Zajac fired a rebound past a sprawled Ward to give the Devils the win and the series lead.
Carolina's Eric Staal told reporters after the game that his team fought hard enough to win but will move on and focus on the next game.
"Our compete level was there. We battled back. We just didn't get it done in overtime," Staal said. "A win is a win (and) a loss is a loss in the playoffs. You've got to leave (the final result), no matter what."
The two teams will meet again at the RBC Center in North Carolina for Game 4 on Tuesday night.