TAMPA, Florida (Ticker) -- The New Jersey Devils got back their leader and extended their lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Defenseman Scott Stevens returned to the lineup after a freak ear injury and scored a power-play goal in the third period to seal the Devils' 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game Four 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 Three 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.
"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 Three 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 Four, 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.
"I think it's important that with the way the Madden line is playing, it's our job to take pressure off them," Gomez said. "Tonight, that's what happened. And if we can get going like we did tonight, we're a tough team to beat."
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.
Cullimore brought the St. Pete Times Forum to life 11 1/2 minutes into the opening period when he wristed a shot from the top of the left faceoff circle into the top right corner of the net.
The Devils effectively shut down the Lightning offense with an aggressive forecheck and by clogging the neutral zone.
"They all collapse, and when they get the puck they don't give it back," Lightning winger Martin St. Louis said. "Puck possession is key. Everyone collapses. We're going to have to find a way to get the puck on net."
When Tampa Bay did penetrate the New Jersey blue line, they were stopped by Brodeur, who rebounded from the Game Three losses with 25 saves.