NEWARK, N.J. – The New Jersey Devils found an unlikely star in Anssi Salmela to sustain their playoff drive.
The defenceman scored his first goal of the season 3:09 into overtime in the Devils’ 3-2 victory over the New York Islanders on Saturday night.
Salmela took a feed from Mattias Tedenby and drilled a shot past Al Montoya as the Devils improved to 22-3-2 in their last 27 games.
Not a bad night for a player who missed 27 games with a knee injury, couldn’t crack the lineup when he returned, and was unclaimed when placed on waivers in January.
“That is crazy,” Devils coach Jacques Lemaire said of Salmela’s season. “He was not among the regulars. He was not even dressing. Then we had injuries. He got back in and has played well. He’s capable of playing like this. At a certain time, he was losing it, making it more complicated, and he got in trouble. When he keeps it simple, he’s got great mobility, good puck control, a good shot and he can play well defensively.”
Salmela’s fourth NHL goal was a huge relief.
“I think he’s more pleased now,” Salmela said of Lemaire. “I’ve been playing, so I think it’s good, a little bit simpler. We are more together in our game plan. I had so many chances and I feel like I have wasted a lot of opportunities. You feel bad when you’re not scoring and you have chances.”
The Devils are still on their improbable drive for a playoff spot. The Devils have played nine straight one-goal games and have overtime wins on consecutive nights. Travis Zajac scored the decisive goal Friday at Atlanta in another 3-2 victory. New Jersey, 12th in the East, moved within six points of the post-season cutoff.
The Devils already achieved a goal Lemaire thought impossible when he came out of retirement: they are .500 (32-32-4). They were 9-22-2 when Lemaire replaced John MacLean on Dec. 23.
“Never,” Lemaire said. “It’s the teams you play against in a league that is so strong. You could win some games in a row, but never enough to get to .500. The hill was too high to even think about it.”
New Jersey had trailed 2-1 in the third period before rallying.
Jacob Josefson had his first NHL goal and David Clarkson also scored, and Martin Brodeur made 13 saves for the Devils.
Blake Comeau and John Tavares scored for New York, which got 32 saves from Montoya. The Islanders are 4-0-3 in their last seven as they try to remain on the fringe of the Eastern Conference playoff race. New York is nine points back in 14th place.
Josefson opened the scoring 1:57 in with a hustle goal. Clarkson tipped the puck into the Islanders zone with Josefson in pursuit. Josefson skated behind the New York net, shook off defenceman Bruno Gervais, and came out the other side to bank in a sharp-angle shot off Montoya’s skate.
Josefson, the Devils’ first-round selection in the 2009 draft, missed 30 games early this season with a hand injury.
New Jersey had several opportunities to expand the lead in the first five minutes but Montoya held his ground, especially when Ilya Kovalchuk had a couple of swipes at a loose puck at the goal mouth.
At the other end, the Devils again went into first-period shutdown mode. They limited the Islanders to only three shots, extending their modern NHL record to 16 straight games without allowing a goal in the opening period.
The Devils finished with eight shots and carried a 1-0 lead into the break.
New Jersey started the second period on the power play, and Brian Rolston almost connected but his hard shot was gloved by Montoya, who was sprawled on the ice.
The momentum then shifted toward the Islanders.
Jack Hillen blocked Kovalchuk’s shot, pushing the puck ahead to Comeau, who burst into the Devils zone. He eluded the backchecking Rolston before dragging the puck across the slot and whipping a backhander past Brodeur at 1:13.
New York had the better of the play the rest of the period. Brodeur made a sparkling glove save on Michael Grabner to preserve the deadlock 6:42 into the period.
Just four seconds later, Tavares put New York ahead 2-1 by deflecting Andrew MacDonald’s pointshot past Brodeur.
In the third, Brodeur stopped Grabner again, this time on a short-handed breakaway. That turned out to be the key save of the night.
“That was obviously the turning point of the game,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. “We could have gone up 3-1. How many times do you see them come back and score right away? It was a big save by Marty. That’s what he does.”
Clarkson scored shortly after to pull the Devils even at 5:42—four seconds after the power play expired. Clarkson jammed the puck home after Montoya failed to corral a rebound.
The Devils outshot the Islanders 15-6 in the third period and 32-15 through regulation.
New Jersey had the only three shots in overtime, too.
Notes: Zajac played in his 387th consecutive game for the Devils, one shy of the club record held by Ken Daneyko (Nov. 4, 1989-March 29, 1994). … The Islanders and Devils will meet once more this season, March 30 in New Jersey.