One of the most inspirational stories of this Stanley Cup finals has to be Bryce Salvador's return.
After missing all of last season with concussion symptoms, Salvador returned to play all 82 regular-season games this season. In the playoffs, though, he has become an offensive force with 11 points, second among all NHL defensemen with three goals and eight assists. He did not score at all in the regular season and registered only nine assists through 82 games.
Still, for all the attention, the veteran blueliner remains very much even-keeled.
“What I try not to do is get ahead of myself," Salvador said Tuesday. "I know what I bring and what my style of game is. If the points come along with it that’s just a plus. But I think it’s more important that we’re winning because if we weren’t winning no one would really be talking about how many points I have.
“Because the whole team’s buying in you’re having a lot of individual success. I’m a big believer in individual success comes from team success.”
Having endured what he endured last season explains at least part of Salvador’s Zen-like attitude.
“Until someone said I couldn’t play [forever] I wasn’t really dwelling on that," said the Brandon, Manitoba, native. "It was more, we need to find out some answers. The symptoms you’re having are not typical of a normal concussion and the fact I wasn’t knocked out unconscious, it was just a string of symptoms that were just evolving over the years. I think you just had to seek out a lot of answers. I wasn’t really making my mind up one way or the other until we were able to figure out really what I was dealing with.
“You just keep pushing forward. It’s very easy to get discouraged and it’s difficult to sit in the stands and watch your team play. And just watching the game. But I think, not that you ever take the game for granted or that you ever get complacent playing a game, but when you live through a situation where you may not play again and then you get the chance to play again you re-appreciate the game again. It’s like you’re starting all over again.
“I think if anything that’s probably a really unique experience for me to go through, kind of starting in the NHL all over again.”
Certainly Salvador is a role model for his teammates.
“It’s amazing. And to be honest he’s one of the best teammates I’ve had,” said forward David Clarkson. "Me and Brycer used to be roommates, we’re really close.
“It’s great to see. He’s a guy that works hard. He’s a big leader in our locker room. So when certain guys put a puck in or something happens it’s definitely exciting.”
It has been a most magical season for rookie Adam Henrique, who is nominated for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year and followed that with a stellar postseason. He scored the overtime winner in Game 7 of the first round against Florida, then scored the overtime winner in the sixth and final game of the Eastern Conference finals against the New York Rangers.
It’s a season that began rather inconspicuously, though, as Henrique was sent down to Albany and the Devils’ AHL affiliate after a lackluster training camp.
“Nobody ever wants to get sent down but it’s going to happen,” Henrique said. "I kind of prepared myself for that before coming into the season. There were certain things in my game that the staff wanted me to work on and that I needed to work on in order to be a player up here [and] to be a successful player here. I didn’t dwell on it. I wasn’t sitting around pouting about going down to Albany."
He didn’t have long to wait to prove that he’d taken the lessons to heart. Center Jacob Josefson was injured and Henrique returned to the lineup almost immediately.
“I told myself, 'Take it like a second chance and take advantage of it because not too many times has that happened.'" he said. "I was lucky and fortunate and once I came back up just really put my mind to it and started working every day trying to make myself better to be able to play here. From that point on [I] didn’t look back.”
The area around the interview area was festooned with pictures of past Stanley Cup winners. The actual Cup itself was sitting on the edge of a television set nearby.
Powerful images for players who are just four wins away from having their names inscribed on the chalice for all time.
“It’s tough. I don’t know. I’m still looking around and while talking to you guys seeing some of the guys holding these Cups up and shaking hands and the Stanley Cup’s sitting right there,” Clarkson said. "It’s all very exciting but we know we have a long road ahead of us.
“That’s a good team we’re playing over there so we have to continue to play the way we’re playing. You don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself. But it’s very special to be playing at this time of the season and we’ve got to enjoy every minute of it. The nerves are there but I think we’re ready to go."
Asked what he was doing a year ago after the Devils failed to make the playoffs, Clarkson -- a Toronto native whose father still works for the City of Toronto -- figured he was playing golf or doing something like that. Seems like a long time ago.
“To be playing here and at a rink, the excitement, you can’t even explain what you feel,” he said.
A year ago Devils captain Zach Parise was on a fishing trip in Ontario, Canada. In fact, he ended up fishing while the Cup was being hoisted by the Boston Bruins in Vancouver after Game 7.
“I didn't watch Game 7," Parise said. "We had an option whether we wanted to come back in and watch the game or keep fishing. We decided to keep fishing.
“I didn't get a chance to watch the seventh game, but we watched them all leading up to that.”
At some point this season, there was a moment where Devils GM Lou Lamoriello believed his team could do great things.
"Halfway through the season I thought there was something special," he said. "I saw the communication that was between the players and Pete [DeBoer], the job that Pete was doing, the role that he allowed his assistant coaches to have, there was just something special in the way all the veterans and all the rookies bought into what was happening. Everybody was going in the same direction. And anytime we had adversity, we came out of it right away. It didn’t stay there for long. It didn’t linger. That’s something you can feel. There’s no magic to it, it’s an intangible."
Devils winger Alexei Ponikarovsky knows his opposition fairly well in the Cup finals, having played in Los Angeles last season.
"I know they got stronger with [Mike] Richards and [Jeff] Carter, obviously," Ponikarosvky said. "But there’s not much change otherwise. Jonathan Quick had a pretty good year. He made big saves for us last year, too."
Ponikarovsky is playing a lot better for the Devils this spring compared to a year ago in L.A. For whatever reason, he just wasn’t a good fit there.
"They play a different style now because of the change of the coach," Ponikarovsky said of the Kings.