Kariya shows character in Game 6

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Paul Kariya wasn't going to stay down.

It was Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals and there was more work to do.

At 6:26 of the second period Saturday night with the Mighty Ducks leading the Devils 3-1, Kariya joined the list of players who have fallen victim to a Scott Stevens check. An instant after dishing the puck off to his left before the Devils' blueline, Kariya, with his head down, turned to his right -- full-speed, face-first into the white No. 4 on the New Jersey captain's shoulder.

Kariya fell to the ice and lay motionless. The capacity crowd that he had whipped into a frenzy with two assists in the first period fell silent.

The sickening feeling was palpable. Not again, not Paul Kariya. He had lay prone on The Pond ice before, on Feb. 1, 1998, when an elbow to the head by Gary Suter knocked him out, ending his plans for the Olympics and eventually his season.

Helped off the ice by Adam Oates and Sandis Ozolinsh, a stunned Kariya made his way to the locker room. But his return was in doubt. After all, no one else came back after encountering one of Stevens' bone-jarring, open-ice hits. Not Slava Kozlov in1995. Not Eric Lindros in 2000. Not Shane Willis or Ron Francis in 2001.

"I was really concerned about his well-being," Mighty Ducks center Steve Rucchin said after his team forced Monday's Game 7 with a 6-2 win. "You see a guy laying on the ice ... you lose a guy like Paul, it doesn't matter what team he's on, that could be a huge blow."

But this time was different. Kariya didn't lose consciousness. After the Suter hit, as the newly crowned and somewhat reluctant posterboy for safety, Kariya switched to a helmet with thicker padding and began wearing a mouthguard to protect him should be suffer another hit to the head.

So at the most crucial of moments, with his young Mighty Ducks facing elimination in the playoffs for the first time, Kariya got up. And less than four minutes later, he made a surprising return.

"It was a nice ovation from the crowd. I didn't expect anything, but it was a nice lift," Kariya said.

Later in the period, it was Kariya who provided the nicest lift of all by beating Martin Brodeur high glove side with a slapshot off the left wing at 17:15.

"He was able to come back, and that really inspired every player in our room," Ducks veteran winger Steve Thomas said.

Kariya had been having a self-admitted, sub-par Stanley Cup finals. With John Madden and the rest of New Jersey's relentless checkers shadowing his every move, he had yet to score a goal and had only one assist the first five games. And due in part to his quiet demeanor, his toughness and leadership also were being called into question.

As the highest paid player left in the postseason with a salary of $10 million a year, Kariya expected more from himself, even though in news conference after news conference his teammates were letting him off the hook. "He's motivating guys by doing other things than by putting the puck in the net," said Ducks center Jason Krog before Game 5.

Contributing in other ways is noble, but Paul Kariya is paid to score goals.

So after his brush with one of the game's all-time hardest hitters, Kariya headed straight for the net. And though his first attempt landed him beneath Colin White, Scott Niedermayer and Brodeur, Kariya didn't stop until he scored his first goal of the series.

"I was just going down the wing and that's where I like to put it in that situation," he said. "I made a good shot and that's it."

That's it? The captain of a band of playoff neophytes returns to the ice after getting his clock cleaned, scores a goal to go with his two assists, and forces the playoff-savvy New Jersey Devils to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals ... and that's it?

"I was impressed with that," coach Mike Babcock said. "It was impressive for him. When you're stretched and people are calling you out, you get a chance to respond. When you respond, that's the best feeling. That's why they pay you the money."

They pay him the money because they know what other people don't.

"That's just a sign of leadership, right there, to come back after that and score that goal," Rucchin said. "I expect the same from him in Game 7."

Because Paul Kariya won't stay down.

Sherry Skalko is the NHL editor for ESPN.com.