TAMPA, Fla., April 30 (UPI) -- Defenseman Scott Stevens returned to the lineup after a freak ear injury and scored a power-play goal in the third period Wednesday night to wrap up the New Jersey Devils' 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 4 of their best-of-seven series.
Stevens needed 30 stitches to close a laceration after taking a slap shot off the left side of his head just 77 seconds into Monday's Game 3 loss. Considered a game-time decision in this one, New Jersey's captain logged a team-high 27 minutes, 35 seconds, chipped in his second playoff goal and was on the ice for all three Devils' tallies.
"The way Stevens played tonight, it didn't surprise me how well he played," New Jersey center John Madden said. "I could tell by the look on his face that he was ready this morning after breakfast. There was no doubt in my mind. To have as many minutes as he did and contribute on all three goals was great."
"I bet he was kicking and whining to come back and play the last game," Lightning Coach John Tortorella said.
Stevens looked shaky at times, committing a pair of giveaways that led to scoring chances. But he sealed the victory with 6:47 left in the contest.
After Joe Nieuwendyk won a draw in the Lighting zone, Stevens rifled a slap shot over the left shoulder of goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin.
"I found a lane to the net," Stevens said. "I knew Khabibulin was screened, but I got the shot up top, where I wanted to put it."
The All-Star, whose helmet had a special protective covering over his left ear, made the decision to return Wednesday morning.
"I felt excited this morning," Stevens said. "Yesterday I talked to my wife and said I felt pretty good. I got up, stood on my feet for a little bit and went from there.
"The equipment managers did a good job and the doctors reassured me. They didn't put pressure on me. They said, `It's up to you, Scotty.' They got the helmet ready -- that was the biggest thing, I think. In warmup, I tried it and felt good enough to help the team."
Most of his teammates did not know of their captain's decision until warmups.
"I saw him this morning and he was just kind of waking up. I saw him at lunch and he looked a lot better," goalie Martin Brodeur said. "I thought, maybe he's playing. Even at the warmup, they didn't say anything about who was playing. But then he said he was playing, so I thought he must be feeling pretty good.
"It's definitely a great addition, a great boost, just to see our leader suck it up. It could have been easy for him to bail out, but he's not that type of guy."
Gomez opened the scoring just under five minutes into the game. Brian Gionta pokechecked the puck away from Game 3 hero Dave Andreychuk right to Gomez, who was breaking toward the blue line. With the Lightning caught on a defensive change, Gomez skated in alone and wristed the puck between Khabibulin's pads.
It was his first goal since the 2001 Stanley Cup Finals.
Elias snapped a 1-1 tie with 3:27 left in the first period by getting a feed from Gomez in the left faceoff circle and wristing it past Khabibulin's glove.
Until Game 4, the Devils got most of their offense come from John Madden and Jamie Langenbrunner, who share the team lead with 11 points. No other New Jersey forward has more than four points.
Jassen Cullimore became the first defenseman to score a playoff goal in Lightning history, but Tampa Bay fell to 2-3 at home in the postseason.