Most of the talk about the New Jersey Devils and their run to the Stanley Cup finals against the Los Angeles Kings has focused on Martin Brodeur, Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Peter DeBoer.
The 40-year-old goaltender, the team’s two big goal scorers and the new coach all have played major roles in getting the Devils back to the championship round just a year after they missed the playoffs for the first time since 1996.
The guy who tends to get lost in all the talk is Travis Zajac.
This was almost a lost season for the Devils’ No. 1 center. He tore an Achilles tendon in August, had surgery the next day and tried to come back in December. He lasted eight games before calling it quits.
Never miss a local story.
Over the next two months, there were times he thought his season was over as the injury and soreness wouldn’t go away. The 27-year-old continued his rehab and eventually came back in late March. It took him a couple of weeks to find his game but one can argue he has been the best player for the Devils in the postseason, which will start its final round on Wednesday as the Los Angeles Kings visit New Jersey.
“He is the type of player who does a lot of things well, from the faceoff to the forcechecking, taking the body,” Brodeur said. “He does a lot of little things. A lot of people who are not watching him and who only look at the stats, miss a lot. He is an effective player. He logs a lot of important minutes. That’s what you have to look at, and who he plays against every single shift, and that tells you a lot about them.”
His statistics aren’t shabby either. Zajac has seven goals – tied for the team high with Kovalchuk and Parise – and five assists. His 12 points are tied for eighth best in the postseason. He also played on New Jersey’s power play and kills off penalties averaging more than 20 minutes a game, third highest among the teams’ forwards.
Not bad for player who appeared in 15 regular-season games.
“Getting this far I’m sure it’s enjoyable for everyone but it really is for me,” Zajac said after the Devils practiced Monday for the first time since winning the Eastern Conference finals against the New York Rangers on Friday night. “Playing this late in the season really makes me feel like I didn’t miss the whole season. It’s really a fun time to play hockey.”
Coming into this season, Zajac had been the Devils’ current iron man. He had played in 401 consecutive games for the team between 2006 and the end of the 2010-11 season only to get hurt working out at home before training camp.
If there has been a positive in terms of the injury, Zajac is fresh. While most of his teammates have played around 100 games, he has played in 33 and seemingly is rounding into midseason form.
Veteran forward Dainius Zubrus said Zajac’s return has been one of the keys to the Devils’ success.
Instead of gambling and making a deal for a top center at the trading deadline, general manager Lou Lamoriello stood pat and waited for Zajac to be ready.
“It took time, but the surprising thing for me is how well the guy can play after basically missing the whole year,” said Zubrus, who plays on Zajac’s right wing with Parise on the left. “He is playing top minutes, PP and PK, and all that stuff. You can’t get a player like that on deadline. When he got healthy it was a big addition.”
DeBoer said Zajac’s contributions are immeasurable.
“We wouldn’t be here without Travis,” said DeBoer, who was forced to use roughly 10 different centers this season in searching for replacement for Zajac.
“Looking back now in reflection, that was an awfully big hole,” DeBoer added.
In facing the Kings, the Devils will be taking on the NHL’s top team in the postseason. Los Angeles is 12-2 and it has barely been tested in knocking off the top three seeds in the Western Conference – Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix. In each series, Los Angeles won the first three games.
“They have big size up front, they check well and control the puck offensively, that’s been one of their strengths throughout the playoffs,” Zajac said. “They have some D-men who can make plays and jump up on offense.”
The Kings also play like the Devils. They roll four lines and have an outstanding goaltender in Jonathan Quick.
“There are similarities for sure, but every team at this point plays a similar style, they forecheck hard and the D keeps puck alive,” Zajac said. “I think every team that has been successful was similar structure.”
The Kings traveled on Monday to New Jersey.