On his way out of the room at Media Day at the Stanley Cup finals, Alexei Ponikarovsky looked at the familiar silver trophy decorating the NHL Network set and blurted to no one in particular, "Is that the real Stanley Cup?"
The New Jersey Devils winger had spent the formative years of his career in Toronto -- he had played fewer than 40 playoff games prior to the Devils' run this spring -- so incredulity at seeing the real Cup can be excused, like an out-of-towner who can hardly believe he is standing in line at a Manhattan deli counter behind the guy who was a cast member of
That is the beauty of the hockey spring. Invariably there is something, like the genuine Stanley Cup, or someone, New Jersey defenseman Bryce Salvador, who seems to materialize out of thin air to gobsmack you.
"I never like to put myself in a situation where I'm surprised," Salvador, 36, replied Tuesday when asked if his offensive numbers had shocked even him. "Everyone wants to contribute. As soon as you limit what you think you can do, maybe it's time to retire."
Salvador is the quiet story of the 2012 Stanley Cup. He has been the rock of The Rock, the precious nickname of the Prudential Center, home of the Devils. He was plus-18 during the regular season despite having no goals and just nine assists. Now, his unprepossessing shot keeps weaving its way through traffic and finding the net. The good-first-pass, stay-at-home blueliner has three playoff goals, including his first career short-handed goal. Salvador also has eight assists.
Salvador offers no detailed explanations for suddenly channeling his inner Scott Niedermayer, other than noting that personal success is handcuffed to team success. He also acknowledges that the aggressive New Jersey system, especially the way the team has played it of late, encourages the things that can translate into numbers.
He has, in effect, taken advantage of the freedom granted by first-year coach Peter DeBoer. During the era when you could actually name at least half of the Devils blueliners without a second thought -- the elegant Niedermayer, the punishing Scott Stevens and the emotional Ken Daneyko -- only Niedermayer enjoyed the liberty of lugging the puck and making uninhibited pinches along the boards. Now DeBoer gives all members of his Stealthy Six the green light to pinch, to forage for pucks as deep as the hash marks. With the proper reads and some puck luck, they support the forwards and buy an extra half-minute of offensive zone time. On a team with elite scorers such as Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise, that time should be money.
Of course, the amazing part of his story is not that Salvador is registering points from the back end -- he has one more goal than Los Angeles Kings swashbuckler Drew Doughty, albeit it in four fewer games -- but that he has played so exceptionally throughout 2011-12 after missing the previous season with concussion symptoms.
Note: Sidney Crosby is not the only hockey player with a brain.
"It's part of the game," Salvador says. "I think the league has done a good job of trying not to alter the game specifically for concussions ... The fact of the matter is that guys are bigger, stronger and faster and the force of the impact is increasing. You're going to have more traumas to the whole body in general, and it just seems like the head is one area that's falling behind. With the duration [of careers] now, you probably are going to see a rise in concussions because of the evolution of the players."
Salvador had one in a preseason fight in September 2010. Then three days later he was rattled by a check from the Flyers' James Van Riemsdyk, which caused problems with the vestibular system -- his balance. Indeed, he suspects his woes originated in December 2008 when he was hit in the ear by an Alex Goligoski shot.
Like Crosby, Salvador cast a wide medical net during his season-long sabbatical. He was treated in New Jersey, of course, but also Denver and Seattle. He saw eye specialists in Memphis.
"The whole system got a tune-up," he says with a hint of a smile. "It was more [like] I needed some answers. The symptoms I was having were not typical of a 'normal' concussion. I wasn't knocked unconscious. It was just a string of symptoms that developed over the years."
Salvador did not miss a match in 2011-12, never once displaying any hesitation on the ice. "When you're tentative," notes Devils defenseman Andy Greene, "that's when you get hurt." Salvador says that he never considered a Plan B. When he was declared ready at the start of the 2011-12, end of story.
"Not that you take the game for granted or ever get complacent playing," Salvador says. "But when you go through situations where you might not play again and you do get the chance to play again, you re-appreciate the game. It's like you're looking at everything through green eyes. It was like starting in the NHL all over again."
Only with Ponikarovsky's Stanley Cup in sight, even better.