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NHL's Gionta brothers stay miles apart

Brian Gionta watched the game from his home in Rochester, where it all started for him and where the path began for his brother. Brian played for the Buffalo Junior Sabres and became a star at Boston College. Stephen played in the U.S. development program and five years later arrived at BC.

Brian was a third-round pick of the Devils in 1998 and reported to AHL Albany in 2001 after college. Stephen signed with New Jersey as a free agent five years later and reported to Albany after winning an NCAA championship. They were in the same organization for four years, but really they were miles apart when it came to success.

Hockey fans knew plenty about Brian, who won a Stanley Cup with the Devils in 2003, who scored 48 goals in 2005-06 and had five straight 20-goal seasons in the years that followed, who is now making $5 million a year as captain of the Canadiens. They knew little about Stephen, who pocketed about $90,000 while his brother lived the dream.

Who wouldn't want the life of Brian? Try Stephen, at least this year.

Brian missed 51 games this season and scored only eight goals, a miserable year for him by any standard and a reason the Canadiens missed the postseason. The Habs are rebuilding. Gionta has been in Rochester with his wife and three children, including a newborn son, after missing the playoffs for the first time in his career.

Stephen is carving his own path in the postseason after getting promoted from the AHL late in the year. He scored his first NHL goal in the regular-season finale, earned a spot on the fourth line for the playoffs and has been playing the best hockey of his career in the conference finals against the Rangers.

For once, Brian is the one watching.

"It's been unbelievable," Brian Gionta said Thursday by telephone. "We're so pumped. I'm watching [Game Five] and I'm into it like I'm sitting on the bench. It's that fun. You see stuff going on, want to be helping and feel like you're right there with him."

Stephen, in case you didn't know, has become a major nuisance for the Rangers. The tiny terror opened the scoring early in Game Five when he banged home a rebound from just outside the crease. He helped give the Devils a 3-2 series lead when he set up Ryan Carter for the winner late in the third period en route to a 5-3 victory.

And to think Stephen, 28, had no points in a dozen games to show for six professional seasons before the call-up. He now has three goals and six points in 17 postseason games while mucking with Carter and Steve Bernier. They have made a difference in the series against the top-seeded Rangers.

"I can't really explain it in words," Stephen told reporters after Game Five. "It's just fun to be a part of this right now. [I'm] just trying to enjoy every moment."

How fun it must be for Gionta to emerge against New York. Rangers captain Ryan Callahan and Stephen Gionta were close boyhood friends while coming through Rochester Youth Hockey. They played hundreds of mini-sticks games, spent hours playing in the streets, had sleepovers, played on the same teams.

Mostly, they wanted to be like Brian, who was proof that the NHL was a realistic goal. Callahan's style personifies the Rangers. Stephen for years was just a step behind and a grade below. Now, he's a win away from preventing Callahan from reaching the Stanley Cup final.

"He's finally getting some recognition for himself for something he's doing," Brian said. "Unfortunately, at times, it's probably been difficult on him going to BC and being in New Jersey. It was tough being in that shadow. It's nice seeing him stepping out of that and getting some recognition for himself."

email: bgleason@buffnews.com