NEWARK, N.J. - The Stanley Cup playoffs usually produce a couple of unlikely heroes. Count New Jersey veteran defenceman Bryce Salvador as one.
Stuck without a goal in the regular season, Salvador has discovered a post-season scoring touch, and has been a key cog in helping the Devils reach the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2003.
After missing last season with an inner-ear concussion, the 36-year-old scored twice as the Devils ousted the Philadelphia Flyers in five games in Round 2. Not bad for someone who had 23 career goals in 692 regular-season games across a decade-long NHL career.
New Jersey, the No. 6 seed with 102 points in the regular season, will play either the New York Rangers or the Washington Capitals in Round 3 next week.
As anyone who watches the Devils regularly will tell you, the goals are just a bonus for Salvador. After all, his job is to protect the region in front of goaltender Martin Brodeur. And through two rounds, it's so far, so good.
Salvador is a plus-8 in 12 games—tied for second best in the league—and his stay-at-home style has allowed defensive partner Marek Zidlicky more freedom to get involved in the offence. Salvador laughed when asked about having his goal-scoring touch back. His first—keep in mind—went into an empty net in Game 2 vs. the Flyers.
"You mean since I was 10," Salvador said. "I just think it is everyone buying into the system and good things are happening for everyone."
The Devils—who would open Round 3 on the road, should the Rangers win Game 7 on Saturday, and start at home, should the Capitals win—skated hard for an hour on Thursday after getting Wednesday off. Either way, Salvador was relaxed after the workout.
And with good reason.
This has been a special season for him. His 2010-11 campaign last just three preseason games, ending with that concussion. He suffered it against the Flyers on Sept. 28, 2010.
"It has been a great experience," Salvador said. "I went through a little phase where you really start to appreciate the game again, when you are faced with that situation that you might not play again. You look at everything all over."
Salvador had symptoms one normally would associate with a concussion during the lost season, but the majority of time was spent searching for answers. He felt some of his concussion might have been related to being hit in the head by a shot in a game against Pittsburgh late in the 2008-09 season.
"I wouldn't classify it as a typical concussion," Salvador said. "The frustrating thing was trying to figure out what was going on with me. It started to make sense when we realized it was an inner ear concussion. And once we were able to figure that out it was as smooth sailing as you can get.
"We had a game plan once we figured out what it was."
Salvador said a major component of his recovery was working on a regimen, recalibrating his fine motor skills and getting his balance back in line. He said he saw doctors who worked with him on his eyes, hearing and balance. All along, Salvador just tried to control what he could, and follow the rehabilitation plan. He said he never thought of retirement.
Salvador has played in all 94 regular- and post-season games this year, and his game has improved since the Devils acquired Zidlicky on Feb. 24 for three players and two draft picks.
"I think we complement each other really well," Salvador said. "He's got some really good skills, the way he moves the puck and skates with it, and makes my job that much easier. I just go in the corners and bang it up and get it to him and he skates it out.
"It's working well."
Zidlicky, who suffered an undisclosed injury on Tuesday night and didn't skate on Thursday, seems to be rubbing off on Salvador on the offensive end, as well. In the Devils' 4-2 win in Game 4 against the Flyers, Salvador made a great pass from the left point that found Zidlicky alone between the circles for a goal.
"All of a sudden, Bryce is sniping a couple in and making plays," Devils forward Patrik Elias said. "I'm telling you it goes hand in hand. I think there is a trust between them. (Salvador) sees (Zidlicky) making plays, and he is trying to make them, too.
Forward Petr Sykora, who has played on two Stanley Cup champions, including the 2000 Devils, smiled when asked about Salvador's new-found offence.
"It always seems that in the playoffs, someone you don't expect to get a lot of points always steps up and gets those points," he said. "He is really having a great playoffs right now."
NOTES: If the Rangers win Game 7 over the Capitals, it'll mark the sixth time that New York and New Jersey will have played in the post-season. The Rangers have won four of them. ... The Devils have only played the Capitals twice in the playoffs, with each winning one. ... Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren, at his team's cleanup day, made mention of how Philadelphia forward Jaromir Jagr looked tired in Round 2, among others. "I think a lot of guys did against the Devils," Holmgren said. "Not just him."