x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

NHL: Zajac proves unsung hero in Devils’ route to Stanley Cup finals

Travis Zajac rarely makes the headlines for New Jersey Devils, but he is an integral part of their Stanley Cup hopes.

New Jersey Devils' Travis Zajac (left) celebrates with teammate Zach Parise
New Jersey Devils' Travis Zajac (left) celebrates with teammate Zach Parise

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 play-offs for the first time since 1996.

The player who tends to get lost in all the talk is Travis Zajac.

This was almost a lost season for the Devils' No 1 centre. 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.

Over the next two months, there were times he thought his season was over as the injury and soreness would not go away. He continued his rehabilitation 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 post-season, which will start its final round tonight in New Jersey.

"He is the type of player who does a lot of things well, from the face-off to the force checking, 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 are not 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 post-season.

He also played on New Jersey's power play and kills off penalties averaging more than 20 minutes a game, the third highest among the team's forwards.

Not bad for player who only 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.

"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' 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 it is that Zajac is fresh.

While most of his teammates have played around 100 games, he has played in 33 and seemingly is rounding into mid-season form.

Dainius Zubrus, the veteran forward, said Zajac's return has been one of the keys to the Devils' success.

Instead of taking a chance and making a deal for a top centre at the trading deadline in the season, Lou Lamoriello, the general manager, remained patient and waited for Zajac to be ready to return to the ice.

"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 the right wing.

"He is playing top minutes, PP (powerplay) and PK (penalty killing), 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 centres this season while he was searching for a replacement for Zajac.

"Looking back now in reflection, that was an awfully big hole."

In facing the Los Angeles, New Jersey will be taking on the NHL's top team in the post-season. The Devils are 12-2 and they have 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 play-offs," Zajac said. "They have some D-men who can make plays and jump up on offence."

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 fore check hard and the D keeps the puck alive," Zajac said. "I think every team that has been successful was a similar structure."

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