NEWARK, N.J. – The Gionta brothers aren’t sure of their head-to-head record, but Stephen Gionta remembers that first time he lined up against his brother in an NHL game.
It was Dec. 2, 2010 and Stephen had just been called up by the New Jersey Devils while Brian was with the visiting Montreal Canadiens.
“The only one I remember is the first one when I think he scored the first minute in the game,” Stephen said Tuesday morning. “That started off that game not so well. Other than that I don’t know who’s up and who’s down.”
In fact, older brother Brian scored 11 seconds into the game as the Habs went on for a 5-1 win. Stephen, who played in 12 NHL games for the Devils that year, had three shots in 13:11 of ice time.
“I don’t know, have we lost to him?” Brian laughed. “Elias Sports Bureau has got to have that somewhere.”
The lighthearted chirping becomes part of the fun when brother faces off against brother. Brian was hoping to lead his Buffalo Sabres team out of a three-game losing streak while Stephen was returning to the lineup for the New Jersey Devils after missing 18 games with a broken hand.
Stephen had the upper hand Tuesday as the Devils took a 2-1 victory, decided by the shootout.
The Gionta brothers had dinner together on Monday night, catching up as they try to do weekly through phone calls or text messages.
Brian, 36, is now geographically closer to his parents, who still live in Rochester but he noted they haven’t come to many games in Buffalo.
“They’re traveling to see the baby,” Brian said.
Five years younger, Stephen followed in much of Brian’s footsteps, including staring at Boston College.
An undrafted free agent, Stephen signed with the Devils organization and played four seasons in the AHL, including serving as captain of the Lowell Devils in 2009-10.
He made his NHL debut in 2010, playing in 12 games for New Jersey and the rest of the season with the AHL team, which moved to Albany that season. His time in the NHL started to increase and he spent all last year on the Devils’ roster, playing in 66 games with 11 points (four goals, six assists). Over the summer he signed a two-year contract extension.
This year he had six points in 38 games before he was hit by a shot from Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang on Dec. 27.
The Devils went 8-8-2 during his absence.
“We’re in touch all the time and when he went down with the injury it’s a tough one,” Brian said. “It’s just the way he plays. He plays the game hard, blocking shots, doing what he can for the team and it’s just one of those unfortunate things.”
And as typical of any player who has to sit in the press box, it was a difficult stretch for Stephen.
“It’s always difficult watching the team play,” Stephen said. “Whether they’re winning, losing, it doesn’t matter what’s going on. When you’re on the sidelines it’s tough. You want to be out there. You want to be with the guys in the middle of it all. I think that’s the toughest thing is knowing you can’t help them out or can’t contribute in any way.”
Gionta had only one full practice before Tuesday’s game although he had been skating on his own.
General Manager Lou Lamoriello was ready to have Gionta back on the ice as the Devils were looking to end a four-game losing streak.
“What he brings, we want to get him in the lineup,” Lamoriello said. “He brings energy. He brings speed. He brings penalty killing and does all the little things that you want everybody to do.”
The fourth line for the Buffalo Sabres generated some offensive zone time and a few scoring chances. Matt Ellis had a backhand chance in close on Devils’ goaltender Cory Schneider off a feed from Cody Hodgson in the second period.
Hodgson finished with 9:36 of ice time – up from his 6:04 on the ice Sunday when he returned from two games in the press box as a healthy scratch.
“With our team we need everybody,” coach Ted Nolan said. “If you notice, Cody Hodgson got a little more ice time as we went. The one thing we want from Cody is work and the skill will catch up. If he doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter how much skill you have.”
Hodgson and Ellis both had two shots on goal while linemate Johan Larsson had one.
Nolan said that Michel Neuvirth will get the bulk of the goaltending work over the next few weeks, giving the 26-year old an opportunity to earn a serious look from the organization.
“I think we’re going to give Neuvirth as much work as he can handle,” Nolan said before Tuesday’s game. “If he can go three in four nights, he’ll go three in four nights. If it looks like he’s getting fatigued a little bit or if goalies have off days, it’s going to be based on that. We’re going to give him every benefit of the doubt early and let him ride as long as he can.”
Neuvirth came into Tuesday’s game having lost his last 10 starts. His last win came on Nov. 15 in a 6-2 decision against Toronto.
“We’re looking to see consistency. As with a lot of our younger players, to get that solid foot in the door,” Nolan said. “With goaltenders you need to see a consistent give-us-a-chance-to-win every night. That’s what No. 1’s do.”
The status of defenseman Josh Gorges, who did not make the two-game road trip to New Jersey and Philadelphia, is still a mystery.
“Still no word,” Nolan said. “He’s still getting evaluated, I guess. So we’ll wait to hear back from that.”
When asked if it was a season-ending lower-body injury, Nolan said. “It could be. I’m not 100 percent sure. We’ll just have to wait and see what the doctors say.”