NEWARK – It’s funny how things work in this game. Take the New Jersey Devils, for example. They have a new hero in Bryce Salvador, a guy who missed the entire season in 2010-11 because of a concussion. But if not for that concussion, he would not have been around to play the hero in the first place.
First, the back-story. Salvador, a solid, but unspectacular defensive defenseman whose previous claim to fame is that he was once Chris Pronger’s defense partner, gets rocked by James van Riemsdyk in a pre-season game in September, 2010. The concussion and vertigo are so bad that Salvador is forced to sit out the entire season. That, in turn, prevents the Devils from trading him to the Colorado Avalanche to get his $2.9 million salary off the books. With Salvador so badly injured, the Devils are simply able to put him on the long-term injury list.
Fast-forward 21 months and Salvador has transformed into an offensive juggernaut, scoring his fourth goal of the playoffs after going 82 games without a single one during the regular season. And in doing so he helped turn the Stanley Cup final from a blowout to one that is very much in doubt. The Devils have climbed out of an 0-3 hole and now are at the very least peering into the daylight. The Los Angeles Kings have an opportunity to push their opponents back down into the abyss, but for all the remarkable things they have done this spring, that has not exactly been their strength.
The Kings are now 3-4 in elimination games in these playoffs, while the Devils are now 10-1 in Game 4 and beyond this spring. As would be expected, the Devils are gaining confidence and the Kings are starting to load up on frustration. And a big reason for the change of complexion are Salvador and Zach Parise, another Devil who missed most of last season with an injury.
“Zach and I were joking about it because this time last year, we were both tying our shoes up and trying to get into shape,” Salvador said. “A year ago, we were just seeing if we could run on the track and get back on the ice.”
For three games, the Devils looked as though they were running…on a treadmill. Lots of effort and puck possession time, but not going anywhere in particular. Perhaps it was just a matter of making plays, something the Devils were not doing in Games 1 through 3. But before Game 4, something clicked with a Devils team that began to realize it was going to be embarrassed in this series until it started being more creative and innovative with the puck. The result has been that they have done in the past two games what they kept saying they would do in the first three – getting more pucks on net and making things more difficult for Kings goalie Jonathan Quick.
“We’re not throwing the puck away as much for sure,” said Devils center Travis Zajac. “And we’re taking more pucks to the net. We were cycling the first few games, but we weren’t getting much out of it, but now we’re trying to take more pucks to the net, get more shots on net and create a little more traffic.”
The Kings, obviously, now face a real test of their mettle, one which they have not encountered since the playoffs started. The post-season had been a joyride for the Kings to this point, but now they face the first real adversity since the puck dropped for the playoff tournament. Not only did the Kings finally lose a game on the road, but their margin for error just got that much smaller. And this might have been the first time in the playoffs that the Kings played a solid game and came out on the losing end.
Kings coach Darryl Sutter, meanwhile, is not buying the notion that his team is facing more pressure and not responding to it particularly well.
“I’m going to say the pressure’s on them,” Sutter said, “because…they had a hundred-some points, OK?”
The Devils no longer feel like they have to become just the third team in history to come back from an 0-3 deficit to win a series because now all they have to do is come back from a 3-2 deficit. A lot of teams have done that before.
When asked if he thinks this is a team that can make history, DeBoer said, “Oh, I don’t know. We’re just trying to win a Stanley Cup.”
1. Zach Parise: After four games of putting forth the effort and not seeing results, Parise scored the all-important first goal on a unique combination of skill and hustle and was all over the ice.
2. Martin Brodeur: Alternating between solid and spectacular, Brodeur is emerging as a legitimate Conn Smythe candidate.
3. Justin Williams: His goal that tied the game was a beauty and like Parise, he was a force in all zones.
THE BLACK HOLE
He’s just doing his job, but Kings defenseman Slava Voynov might want to stay away from the front of his team’s net. With the second goal of the series going off him, Voynov currently has more goals for the Devils in the final than Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac and Patrik Elias.
Ken Campbell will be filing daily from the Stanley Cup final.