They were so abundant last year. They are so scarce now. The Nashville Predators may be the favorite to win the Stanley Cup and may have all the ingredients needed to do such a thing, but they have taken a serious hit in the “potential folk heroes” department.
Really, I can only find one in the forward group of 12 that was expected to take the Bridgestone Arena ice for Thursday’s Game 1 of the playoffs against the Colorado Avalanche. Miikka Salomaki, you’re our only hope.
You alone can make a key and unexpected play to help the Predators win a game and earn the response: “Wait, who?”
“And wait, how do you spell that?”
You alone can be like Harry Zolnierczyk a year ago – and Freddy Gaudreau, and Pontus Aberg, and Vern Fiddler, and Cody McLeod, and Colton Sissons – and supplement a story built mostly around stars with tales of a grinder who managed to carve out an opportunity and make the most of it.
“When he hits guys, they feel it,” said Sissons, who can no longer be one of those guys after a 2017 postseason that saw him take over at No. 1 center by necessity and deliver a hat trick to clinch the Western Conference finals against Anaheim. “Miikka’s certainly a guy that could step up and have a big impact. Everybody has an opportunity to be that guy, to step up with something when the team needs it most. Last year we were fortunate enough to have that throughout the playoffs. It would be great if we had that again, I’ll tell you.”
But quietly, Salomaki has solidified himself.
“He brings speed and physicality,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said of the 25-year-old Salomaki, a load at 5-foot-11, 203 pounds. “There’s another guy who has really put himself in position to possibly be there Thursday night in the starting lineup. For a guy that was in and out of the lineup, he’s done an excellent job of just, every opportunity he’s gotten in a game in his last 15, he’s been really solid with his straight lines, with his physicality, with his puck battles. Getting pucks out, getting pucks in. Just, to me, he’s looked really strong. He looks like he’s confident right now and he’s become a player we were playing down the stretch.”
Salomaki, a second-round pick in 2011 out of Raahe, Finland, played 58 games this season after multiple injuries limited him to five in the 2016-17 regular season. He outdid that with six games in the run to the Stanley Cup Final, so he’s familiar with the role of anonymous grinder under the bright lights. But it’s at least a little bit surprising that he’s in that position as these playoffs begin.
He’s a finisher with the body but not with the puck – he has eight career goals and 19 points in 125 games – but he has added some subtle finesse this season that has made it difficult for Laviolette to remove him from the lineup.
“His game the last maybe two months, he’s upped his play big time,” Preds defenseman Ryan Ellis said of Salomaki. “When we need energy, if we’re kind of lackadaisical, he’s always a guy who’s executing well and his ferocity is tremendous. He brings some life at times when we need it. And he’s starting to make plays that maybe typically he wouldn’t make. Instead of flipping the puck or throwing it away, he’s starting to look for his linemates. And I think that just comes with confidence, and I think he’s found that confidence and has been rolling with it. He’s been unbelievable lately.”
The primary job, for as long as Salomaki has it in this lineup, is to be physical and make Colorado players feel it when they’re going after the puck in the corners.
“I’ve always been playing the same way. I don’t think you can change it too much,” Salomaki said. “I try to play the same way every year. I try to bring some energy and be physical. That’s my role here, mostly on the fourth line, just try to keep it simple, energy and hits and stuff like that.”
But if he sneaks in and gets a big goal or assist along the way? That’s M-I-I-K-K-A, and the pronunciation is MEE-ka SAH-lo-mah-kee.