- Scott Burnside, NHL
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HERO -- BRIAN GIONTA
When the NHL was contemplating its new rules and its new product, the league must have been thinking about Brian Gionta.
In the old world, Gionta -- with his 5-foot-7, 175-pound frame -- was in danger of getting smothered by hulking, slow-footed defensemen every time he ventured near the net. Not that it stopped him. Gionta, the 82nd pick in the 1998 draft, always has played as though he's 6 foot 3.
But with new rules on obstruction and more flow to the game, Gionta has established himself as a true talent, more than doubling his goal output from 2003-04.
With two goals Tuesday, Gionta established a franchise record for goals with 48 and finished the regular season with 89 points. He scored in 12 of his last 17 games and enters the playoffs with a 15-game point streak.
With 10 game-winning goals, Gionta has helped quiet such discussion as the Devils pulled off an improbable surge to the Atlantic Division title on the last night of the regular season.
VILLAIN -- DARIUS KASPARAITIS
Oh, come on. It's like shooting fish in a barrel, picking the smiling Lithuanian as a series villain. He has been playing the role since he joined the NHL back in 1992-93 on Long Island.
At times, he appears to be more caricature than bona fide member of the hockey community with his gnomelike countenance and his mullet. Last fall, it seemed probable the Rangers would buy out Kasparaitis rather than pay him the $3.34 million he was owed, an effort to separate themselves from their recent past.
But there was method to the team's apparent madness in keeping the 33-year-old in the fold as the Rangers have been one of this season's surprise teams. Kasparaitis has been part of a core of veteran leaders who have helped buy into and implement coach Tom Renney's systems. Although Kasparaitis missed 13 of the last 14 games with the ubiquitous "lower-body injury," the fearless defender continues to lead the Rangers in hits while being in the top 10 in the league. He also has 111 blocked shots.
This is no surprise from a player whose career has been defined by his hits -- some legal, some not. He's the kind of player the Rangers will turn to when the going gets tough, as it no doubt will during the team's first-round tilt vs. the Devils.
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