Vancouver Canucks Sami Salo gritty new 'Iron Man
A slight smile was followed by an approving nod of the head when Sami Salo was reminded that his hockey odometer is rolling over to some impressive numbers this season.
Should the Vancouver Canucks defenceman suit up for the three remaining regular-season outings, the 69 games will mark his highest total since logging 74 in the 2003-04 campaign. Considering the amiable 37-year-old Finn was sidelined six games by his first concussion on the brutal low-bridge hit by Brad Marchand on Jan. 7 that resulted in a five-game suspension — Salo missed just four more games with a groin strain — his durability has become as big a story as his blazing slapshot and a career plagued by 40 injuries. After all, Salo has grudgingly sat out just three games, including two on the last road trip, at the rest request of Alain Vigneault. The coach even admitted if he had one extra healthy body on the back end, Salo wouldn't have played both games in back-to-backs last weekend against Dallas and Calgary. That would have been a hard sell.
"I felt really good in them," said Salo. "Maybe a well-oiled engine gets better when you use it. I haven't felt fatigue or anything at all. A good base was having a good summer with proper training and luck has been on my side except for the Marchand hit because I could have broken my neck. I've maybe paid a little bit more attention to recovery and trying to take the optional skates off and reserving energy and it seems to be working.
"It was interesting because I didn't need it [rest] last trip. We discussed it briefly and I agreed with whatever they decided."
"Stubborn coach," replied Vigneault. "Those calls were my calls and I'm not sure he was crazy about that and he wouldn't come out and tell me because he's a real pro. He prefers to play."
It's not just the playing. Everything seems more in sync with Salo in the lineup. The pairings make more sense, the puck is moved more effectively because Salo doesn't panic and he makes the smart position decisions in the defensive zone. And when there are chances to score, Salo realizes that his slapshot that has been clocked at 102.7 miles per hour isn't effective if it can't get through a maze of legs. That's why he wisely sent a wrist shot toward the net in overtime Saturday that Andrew Ebbett managed to deflect for a 3-2 victory over the Flames to extend the club's win streak to a season-high six games. It was a subtle play but a calculated one.
"The first pass from Eddie [Alex Edler] bounced over my stick and I couldn't get a clear shot and just tried to get it to the net," said Salo, who logged 21:52 of ice time. "Guys are taking a lot of pride blocking shots and that's kind of the new NHL."
Seven of Salo's nine goals this season are on the power play and his slapshot could be a deciding factor in tight playoff games often decided by special teams. In Game 4 of the conference final last spring, Salo boomed a pair of 5-on-3 power-play goals in San Jose to swing series momentum. This season, Salo ranks fourth in shots from the back end with 131 — Edler has 223, Kevin Bieksa 161 and Dan Hamhuis 135 — but he's like a nuclear weapon. Seldom deployed but always dangerous.
"It's funny," Ebbett recalled of his overtime winner. "It was kind of a half-clapper because when he's winding up, you're not tipping that shot, so I knew it was coming at half Sami Salo speed. It was tip-able. It's just the experience factor. He's consistent. That's what every guy strives for and he's the definition of that around here."
Salo is also the voice of reason in the room. While he leads by example on the ice, his dry wit is disarming and his willingness to help young defencemen like Marc-Andre Gragnani and Chris Tanev is not lost on those trying to grow their games.
"He's a great player and a person," said Gragnani. "He's very quiet but very serious and very professional. You learn so much and it's good for our future. He's always even-keeled — never too high or too low."
That's a valuable asset to understand the Canucks' own version of March Madness. They found it difficult to manufacture urgency with a high playoff seed secured and lost four of five games but now lead the conference, even though the injured Daniel Sedin has missed six games, Aaron Rome four and Bieksa three. Keith Ballard is starting to practise after suffering a concussion on Feb. 4.
The once vaunted power play has gone 2-for-25 the last eight games
"It's been very challenging," said Salo. "We made some kind of uncharacteristic mistakes in a lot of the games and we've been forcing a lot of plays. But the last few games have been a better showing of what our team is all about — hard work and making the simple plays. You don't want to compare teams too much, but we have a really strong group and most of the guys have been through what we went through last year and have grown with that. We know what it takes to win in the playoffs.
"There's a quiet confidence, but we're not overly confident for sure. We know how things can change over the course of a playoff series and we have to prepare to get our game in top shape and go from there."
Where Salo goes after this season isn't a mystery. The unrestricted free agent wants to keep playing and is a bargain this season at $2 million US. Part of it is the search for the big one. The Turku native won a Swedish Elite League title with Frolunda during the NHL lockout season. He captured silver at the 2001 world championship and 2006 Olympics and bronze at the 2010 Olympics. And when Finland won the 2011 world title with a resounding 6-1 clobbering of rival Sweden, Salo was competing in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"For sure, I'll be playing somewhere next year," said Salo. "I feel really good and the key has been being healthy and playing with a lot of good teammates has made it fun."
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