Watching Stephen Gionta for a few minutes, one sees it’s just like riding a bike.
The “it” here is not simply playing hockey. Not centering a line with familiar winger Chad Wiseman. Not even skating.
“It” is “working,” and Gionta does it as naturally as breathing.
“He does a lot of the little things great,” said Wiseman, who with Mattias Tedenby, will form Gionta’s line against Bridgeport today at 5 p.m. at the Times Union Center.
“He blocks shots, he’s a good penalty killer, he’s got a great work ethic, he leads by example. For a little guy, he’s a huge guy to have back in the lineup.”
The little guy is 5-foot-7 without the skates. He’s big enough, though, once he puts them on.
Gionta has been on the shelf since the start of the season, or when the NHL season should have started. Dusting off his game, he signed an AHL contract and returned Monday to the team he captained for the previous two seasons.
He is the Devils’ AHL all-time leader in points (135), goals (56), assists (79), shots (815) and games played (360). Last season, he had six goals and 10 assists in 56 games with Albany.
In New Jersey’s last regular-season game, he scored his first NHL goal. Gionta went on to add three goals and four assists in 24 playoff games to help the Devils to the Stanley Cup finals.
His return to Albany comes at a time when the Devils need something, anything, to get on track. They recently lost centerman Adam Herique for the month to a thumb injury. Though Gionta’s game is a bit different, a bit more blue-collar than that of highly skilled Calder Trophy finalist Henrique, Gionta may just be the that something the team needs.
“Most of the guys from last year or who are in the organization, know what he brings,” Albany coach Rick Kowalsky said. “The guys that don’t have either played against him or saw him in the playoffs. He’s a guy who pushes the pace in the game and in practice, you’ve got to skate with him. It’s a little boost of energy and another voice in the room we can use right now.”
The Devils have been snakebitten this season with just 40 goals in 18 games, the second-lowest output in the league so far. It’s not for a lack of effort, but they’ve been unable to finish and provide some goal support for their goalies.
Albany (5-8-0-5) sits at the bottom of the Northeast Division, but games this weekend against Bridgeport and Connecticut (3 p.m. Sunday in Hartford) offer a chance to jumpstart a turnaround.
“This little stretch before Christmas is huge,” Wiseman said. “We’ll start with this weekend, one game at a time, but we want to get back above .500 before the Christmas break and come back on a high note and have a great second half. That’s what we’re looking for.”
True to his sytle of play, Gionta’s advice for his teammates is not surprising.
“Just keep working hard, and the pucks will eventually bounce your way,” Gionta said. “You go through stretches where you maybe grip the stick a little too tight, and the best thing to do is keep working hard, and the puck will bounce your way.”
Wiseman said it doesn’t look like Gionta has turned into a couch potato during the lockout.
“He’s a professional, so you know he hasn’t just been sitting at home,” Wiseman said. “He’s been working out and skating. It’ll probably take him a few practices, maybe a few games to get his timing and everything back, but his conditioning looks good, he’s handling the puck well and he’s got a great work ethic, so he’ll be fine.”
“I’m trying to keep up out there, now,” Gionta said. “The guys have been great. Tedy’s a great player, he’s very skilled. I’ve played with Wiser now for a while, so, hopefully, we can pick up where we left off. On and off, we’ve played together for a couple years, and it’s like I never left.”
In addition to Henrique, the Devils’ injury report still includes LW Jean-Sebastien Berube (upper body). A new addition to the list is D Raman Hrabarenka, whose foot was cut by a skate Thursday. He may return to the ice today, but not likely to game action this weekend.