Salmela emerges as unlikely hero for Devils

NEWARK, N.J. -- Looking up and down the New Jersey Devils’ roster, third-pair defenseman Anssi Salmela was the last player you'd expect to score a game-winning overtime goal. This season, however, the Devils are proving that anything is possible.

Even that unlikely scenario, which came to fruition on Saturday night.

With 1:51 remaining in overtime, Salmela roofed a wrist shot past New York Islanders goalie Al Montoya that proved to be the difference in yet another heart-stopping Devils’ victory, 3-2, in front of a sellout crowd at the Prudential Center. Not only was the goal Salmela’s first of the season, it was also his first since Feb. 8, 2010. And he couldn't have picked a more opportune time for it.

“It’s a big relief,” said Salmela, who entered the game with three career goals in 97 games. “I had so many chances to score [this season], and I feel like I’ve wasted a lot of opportunities to score. Maybe you’re a defenseman and you’re not expected to score much, but you feel bad when you’re not scoring good chances. So it was really good.”

Salmela allowed New Jersey (32-32-4, 68 points) to skate off with the victory -- and move to within six points of the Buffalo Sabres (33-27-8, 74 points) for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference -- after he took a pass from rookie left winger Mattias Tedenby, entered the New York zone, and used defenseman Radek Martinek as a screen before going upstairs and beating Montoya high glove side from the left hash mark.

“I just found the open spot there,” Salmela said. “I have more room in the 4-on-4, so I just tried to create a little more room to have more space. I tried to beat him and shoot from the feet, so it worked out well.”

Salmela immediately began to celebrate along the left wing boards, where he was piled on by Tedenby, Patrik Elias and the rest of his teammates.

“Yeah [I saw his celebration],” said goaltender Martin Brodeur, who made 13 saves to record the win. “He almost got killed there. He’s lucky if he makes it to the next game.”

Actually, there was a point in time last season when Salmela didn’t know when he’d return. During the offseason, he tore his ACL while playing for his native Finland in the LG Games. Salmela had surgery and ended up missing all of training camp and the first 29 games of the regular season while undergoing rehab.

Eventually, he made it back to the ice, but wasn’t really much of a factor until injuries to fellow defensemen Matt Taormina and Matt Corrente forced interim coach Jacques Lemaire’s hand and made him turn to the 26-year-old Salmela out of necessity.

“Crazy,” Lemaire said. “[Anssi] wasn’t here, he wasn’t among the regulars. He wasn’t even dressing. And then we got injuries. He got back in, and he’s played well.”

Up until Saturday night, though, Salmela’s impact on the ice hadn’t been felt like this.

“He’s capable of playing like this,” Lemaire said. “The thing is, at a certain time, he’s losing it. He wants to make it more complicated and he gets in trouble. When he keeps it simple, he’s got great mobility; great puck control. He’s got a good shot. He’s a good defensive player too. When he gets the puck, if he thinks about his [defensive] partner and using his partner when he’s in trouble, and making the easy play when he’s in trouble, he’ll be fine. But the thing is, he wants to create something when there’s nothing that you can create.

Salmela said the key to his recent success has been about trying to simplify things on the ice, and taking Lemaire’s coaching tips from practice into game situations.

“I think he’s more pleased with the way I’ve been playing,” Salmela said. “I had a beginning injury and all that stuff. Then, we were losing games and it’s just harder. [But] it’s getting better, so we’ve gotta keep up the good work. Hopefully it’s gonna get us to the playoffs still.”

So had Salmela ever scored a game-winner before? Nope.

Not in the NHL, anyway.

That was another first. A more important first.

“It’s pretty nice,” Salmela said. “What can I say? It’s good. Especially now, since we really needed the win. It’s even bigger.”

During his postgame interview, Brodeur was asked point blank: Was Salmela the last guy on the roster that you expected to score in that spot?

“Well,” Brodeur said. “I don’t know why he doesn’t have more goals. He’s skilled. He’s playing some good hockey. It’s very rewarding for us and very rewarding for him.”

Maybe Salmela was the last player the Devils’ players expected to be the hero on Saturday night. But to them, it doesn’t matter.

After all, any player can rise to the occasion at any time. And in the second half, at least, they have.

That’s why the Devils are very much alive in the postseason race.

You can follow Mike Mazzeo on Twitter: @MazzESPN