It doesn't matter if you're a team with a Hall of Fame shoo-in in goal like Martin Brodeur, a model captain like Zach Parise or a sniper like Ilya Kovalchuk, there's little chance of getting where you want to go without that unexpected hero jumping to the forefront.

That's the beauty of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

For the New Jersey Devils, who open the Stanley Cup Final at home Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Kings, Ryan Carter was as pivotal to the Devils' ability to knock off the rival New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals as the Devils' household names.

The White Bear Lake native scored three times in the series, including in the Game 6 clincher. And it was Carter's winning goal with 4:24 left in Game 5 that kept the Devils from blowing a 3-0 lead and gave them a stranglehold in the series.

But maybe Carter prospering on the big stage shouldn't come as such a shock.

After all, Carter's NHL debut came in 2007 when the former Minnesota State Mankato standout was hurled into the Western Conference finals against the Detroit Red Wings by the eventual champion Anaheim Ducks.

"I thought I was there to practice all playoff and soak up the experience, and lo and behold, there was a need and they put me in," Carter, who played three games in the conference finals and once in the Stanley Cup Final against Ottawa, said by phone Monday.

"It all happened so fast. Nerves, jitters, you name it, so I don't think there's a scenario I can be put in now that would be as nerve-racking as that."

Carter credits that experience as to why he has looked so poised all postseason for New Jersey. He learned what playoff hockey was all about before he even tasted a regular-season game, so the ramped-up intensity and increased media attention haven't intimidated him.

Of course, the guy still can't grow a playoff beard. Instead, Carter, 28, has taken much grief for his weak playoff mustache -- one that's a lot thinner than that of his father, Mike, who has sported one his entire career with the St. Paul Police Department and now Ramsey County Sheriff's Department.

"Obviously there's no chance I could ever be a police officer with this mustache," Carter said, laughing. "I just lack the genetic capability to grow a beard and really mustache, too. This is what I got. I'm taking a lot of heat with the fellas, but I'm running with it.''

Carter has thrived on the Devils' high-energy fourth line, playing left wing alongside Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier. After getting four goals and four assists in 72 games for New Jersey and Florida, Carter has four goals and two assists in 17 playoff games. The six points have come in six victories.

"But that's why I love hockey," Carter said. "It's not about who scores the goal. It's about winning games, especially this time of year."

Still, not bad for a hockey player who was allowed to pass through waivers by 29 teams at least twice in his career and was acquired by New Jersey via waivers from Florida in October.

"Waivers are a stressful experience," Carter said. "It's a good thing it's only 24 hours because it seems like 24 weeks."

It has worked out for Carter, a high school quarterback until he was told by former White Bear Lake football coach Bob Jackson to pick between football and hockey entering his junior year.

"I had to choose that day, so I said, 'I don't know if I can play football then,'" said Carter, an eventual 2002 Minnesota Mr. Hockey finalist.

In 2007, Carter brought the Stanley Cup back to the White Bear Lake Sports Center, as well as to Mankato and Patrick McGovern's Pub in downtown St. Paul. What will he do this time for his day with the cup if New Jersey's fortunate enough to win?

"You don't want to get ahead of yourself," he said. "We've got to win four more games before we can really focus on that."