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DEVILS 3, BRUINS 2

Bruins schooled in overtime

Gionta scores the high mark for Devils

Brian Gionta scored two goals, but he lost this high-sticking battle with Tim Thomas.
Brian Gionta scored two goals, but he lost this high-sticking battle with Tim Thomas. (Globe Staff Photo / Barry Chin)

Nearly eight jam-packed seasons of hockey have hardly dulled the painful memory. That's how it is with bitter disappointment. So don't think for one minute Brian Gionta is chalking up last night's heroics as some sort of revenge.

Sure, his second goal of the game, at 2:10 of overtime, lifted the New Jersey Devils to a 3-2 win over the Bruins at TD Banknorth Garden, and yes, it came on a play in which he avoided the backchecking efforts of the Bruins' Josh Langfeld. Although it was worth 2 points in the standings, it wasn't enough to wipe out eight years of heartache.

The 1998 NCAA Championship at the FleetCenter, the same ice surface on which he skated last night? That was when Gionta and his Boston College Eagles were stunned at 17:51 of overtime on a goal by a Michigan freshman named Josh Langfeld. The same Josh Langfeld who couldn't stop Gionta from converting a deft feed from Sergei Brylin into an overtime winner.

''I knew he was on the ice last night, but I didn't know that was him [bearing down on the winning play]," said Gionta, whose 32d and 33d goals added up to great frustration for the Bruins, who wasted another sparkling goaltending effort by Tim Thomas (31 saves) and a clutch, tying score by Wayne Primeau with 7:47 to play. That score by Primeau, who had hopped onto the ice as a sixth skater during a delayed penalty call, answered one that Gionta had tallied five minutes earlier and assured Boston its 14th overtime game.

Like so many of the others, it ended on a sour note when Brylin skated down the right wing and turned the Boston net, Brian Leetch close behind. Coming to a quick halt and turning into the left corner, Brylin squared up and fired a centering pass that a hard-charging Gionta gathered in as he roared toward the goal. He knew someone was closing in, but Gionta didn't have time to even consider the situation. The onetime BC scoring machine only had time to rip a shot past Thomas to stun the Garden crowd, but in no way did it wipe out the memory of '98, even if Langfeld was somewhat involved.

''No, no. Not at all," said the Devils' whirlwind of firepower. ''It still would have been nice to have that '98 championship. It still hurts."

The Bruins know all about hurt, because for the third time this season they played the Devils tough, only to lose. Back in October it was a shootout defeat in Boston. Then, just after Thanksgiving, in a game that would prove to be Joe Thornton's finale with the Black 'n Gold, the Bruins squandered a 2-0 led and fell, 3-2, at the Meadowlands. Now this, maybe the most hurtful of all.

''We had a lot of chances to score that third goal," said P.J. Axelsson, who pointed the finger squarely at himself. That's because 7 1/2 minutes into the third period he stood at the right post during a power play and had New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur (37 saves) at the left post and the puck on his stick. Well, almost.

''I just didn't draw it back enough," he said, and Axelsson's recall of the play stung even more because after he had failed to stuff it home, he watched Gionta gather in the loose puck and skate the length of the ice. As he roared in on Thomas, Gionta flipped a backhanded pass intended for Brylin, only it didn't get there; instead, it caromed off the stick of defenseman Brad Stuart, a shorthanded gift goal for Gionta, yes, but a 2-1 Devils lead.

''[Patrik] Elias throws a knuckle puck at me, we get a bad bounce off the [defenseman's] stick, and then to lose in overtime? All those things add up to a little bit of disappointment," said Thomas, whose reference to the first New Jersey goal is accurate. Elias's shot was one Tim Wakefield would have appreciated.

Glen Murray, set up beautifully by Brad Boyes from behind the net at 11:01 of the first, had given Boston an early lead and Thomas was doing everything in his power to make it stand up when, at 5:52 of the second, Scott Gomez jumped all over a turnover by Boston's Eric Nickulas and spearheaded a three-on-two break. From the left boards, Gomez fed to the middle, where Elias had a clear shot and a huge windup. Naturally, Thomas thought a NASA launch was up next. Wrong. Elias didn't get good wood on it, the puck sort of bounced in like a knuckle-curve, and Thomas was perplexed.

He was also beaten and the game was tied, 1-1.

''We're giving ourself a chance every night to win games and get points," said Bruins coach Mike Sullivan, who chose to look at the glass as half-full. OK, the Bruins have won three and lost three in overtime, and have gone 0 for 8 in shootouts, and yes, they fell into 10th place when only eight teams make the Eastern Conference playoffs, but there was the rally from being down, 2-1, to New Jersey.

''That's a positive," said Boyes, whose work on a line with Patrice Bergeron and Murray was superb, though their combined 11 shots didn't get the production they would have liked. ''We got a point and we'll take that as a moral victory."

The real victory went to a rejuvenated group of Devils, who are 14-4 since the new year. But even though he sealed it with his fifth winner, Gionta insisted it was worth just 2 points and a lot of fun for his BC friends (including brother Stephen) in attendance, but in no way did it erase memories of 1998.

Moral victories aren't retroactive.

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