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Rolston finds a home on top line

by Brian Compton
RALEIGH, N.C. -- New Jersey Devils coach Brent Sutter was confident heading into Sunday's Game 3 against the Carolina Hurricanes that veteran forward Brian Rolston was more than capable of filling in for injured captain Jamie Langenbrunner.

In the end, Rolston didn't look like he was filling in. He looked like he belonged.

The 36-year-old made a key play behind the Hurricanes' net early in the first that led to Zach Parise's game-opening goal and finished with three shots and a plus-2 rating in New Jersey's 3-2 overtime victory at the RBC Center.

Truth be told, Rolston appeared as if he had been skating with Parise and Travis Zajac all along. Zajac scored the game-winner at 4:58 of the extra session.

"It was a lot of fun," Rolston said after the victory. "I thought we had instant chemistry. I thought we played well together. It was just one of those things. It was good."

Rolston didn't get an assist on Parise's third goal in as many games, but it never would have happened without his efforts. He drilled Carolina defenseman Joni Pitkanen behind the net, forcing the hulking blueliner to cough up the puck. Moments later, Parise redirected Paul Martin's drive past Cam Ward for the 1-0 lead.

"Rollie's a great player," Parise said. "It worked out really well. On that first goal there, he made the play. He went in on the forecheck and caused the turnover. It worked out pretty well."

Rolston, who signed as a free agent with the Devils last summer, experienced a decline in the goal-scoring department during the regular season. After enjoying back-to-back 31-tally campaigns with the Minnesota Wild, Rolston had only 15 goals this season.

Nonetheless, the self esteem is still clearly evident.

"My confidence is fine, but it was good to get that one early," he admitted. "I played on a good line tonight. I thought we played well together. The flow in this game wasn't great because we had a lot of penalties, but all in all, we had a good team win tonight. That's what's most important."

Rolston will almost certainly find himself skating alongside Parise and Zajac again in Tuesday's Game 4. Langenbrunner, who suffered a lower body injury on Friday night, has already been declared out. His status for Game 5 on Thursday night remains unknown.

Still, the Devils' top line hasn't missed a beat. It certainly didn't on Sunday, which wasn't a surprise to Rolston's teammates.

"With Rollie coming in, he plays the same style as me and Zach," Zajac said. "He's quick and he's got a great shot. He likes to cycle the puck. We didn't change really anything on our line. Rollie stepped in and he did a great job. He was a big part of this win."

New Jersey coach Brent Sutter was brief when asked what he thought of the job Rolston did on the top line -- but it was easy to see he was pleased.

"He played very well," Sutter said. "I thought Brian did a great job."

In the end, it was just another case of experience paying huge dividends. While Rolston didn't land on the score sheet, his contributions did not go unnoticed. After all, it's the little things that help teams win at this time of year.

"He's a smart enough player, a veteran player," Zajac said. "He knows how to get to the areas to score goals and create chances. I don't think that was a problem for him stepping in."

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