It felt like the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals all over again on Tuesday night at Wells Fargo Center, as the New Jersey Devils downed the Philadelphia Flyers 2-1. The game featured sharp goaltending, a fancy Marek Zidlicky, goal and relentless forechecking. More importantly, there were two players that looked like their 2012 selves: Bryce Salvador and Anton Volchenkov.
Salvador logged 24:24 of ice time with a plus-1 rating and five blocked shots. Volchenkov was just as brilliant as he posted 17:10 on the ice to go along with a plus-1 rating and two blocked shots.
Last year, Volchenkov and Salvador were weak points of the team. Volchenkov had his lowest plus/minus rating since 2008-09. His PIM/game was tremendously high; he averaged 1.0 PIM/game, which equates to 82 minutes over the course of a regular season. His previous career high in PIM was in 2006-07 with 67.
Salvador was a minus-12 in 39 games, which extrapolates to well over a minus-24 for an 82-game slate. Sal’s career worst came in 2005-06 when he was exactly minus-24. According to behindthenet.ca, Salvador’s Corsi rating was a -1.37, worst on the team. In fact, it ranked 95th among NHL defenseman who played at least 30 games. Critics grilled Salvador’s first campaign as captain last year, saying he wasn’t vocal enough. The fact of the matter is that no one is inside that lockerroom to see how he interacts with the team during the course of a game or when the media isn’t around. Throw in the fact that he was hampered by a hip issue all year, The Captain struggled to lead by example.
For 2013-14, they will be the x-factors to the Devils success. If they can rebound from the shaky seasons they had last year, their hopes of a championship will get a big shot in the arm. On Tuesday, both were in vintage form.
Moments into the second period, the Devils found themselves on a penalty kill. Towards the end of it, the Flyers were swarming and a clear cut chance looked to be on the way from the middle of the slot. Volchenkov was able to hurry, dive and get his stick on the puck, catapulting it over the net.
At the end of the second period while on the PK, Salvador hit the deck to block a point shot with his lower body. He did so successfully, grimacing a bit as the puck eventually bounced out to the neutral zone. Flyers commentators Jim Jackson and Keith Jones gave him high praise for putting his body on the line during a preseason game. I’m sure his teammates noticed and Devils fans should have too.
Both played very strong contests. Great plays at time, but for the most part they were consistent and solid. With Cory Schneider in net, that’s all the Devils defensemen need to be; solid. Volchenkov and Salvador were on fire during the 2012 playoff run to the Stanley Cup Final. They both played all 24 games, combining for five goals and 11 assists while checking in at plus-16.
That’s too far-fetched a pace for them to duplicate in 2013-14. But their numbers 2012-13 numbers shouldn’t be duplicated either, since they were the exception to the rule compared to their career baselines.
Consider this. Ilya Kovalchuk and Martin Brodeur missed significant chunks of last season. They lost 12 straight games. Their top two centers in Adam Henrique and Travis Zajac had extremely underwhelming seasons. Salvador and Volchenkov had their worst seasons in Devils uniforms. All that, and they only missed the playoffs by seven points. If Salvador and Volchenkov can be, at the very least, somewhat productive this year, the Devils will be better than last year.
From what we saw on Tuesday, there’s hope for more than just being better. There’s hope for both playing at the same level they did two seasons ago, when they fell just short of a Stanley Cup.