‘Devils In The Details’
By Sean Hartnett
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For four months, Travis Zajac labored through rehabilitation and finally was able to return to the Devils’ lineup in mid-December. Unfortunately for Zajac, his comeback was cut short after just eight games.
His own desperation to return to the ice had come back to bite him. Zajac’s Achilles’ tendon wasn’t strengthened enough and was told by doctors to quit skating and resume conditioning. Zajac was forced back to square one and began the process all over again, eventually returning on March 25 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It was a hellish eight months for Zajac, but he finally got a taste of ecstasy on Tuesday night.
Zach Parise’s defensive effort and willingness to keep the play alive allowed Ilya Kovalchuk to draw attention as he dragged two Florida Panthers’ defenders with him and slid a pass onto Zajac’s tape. Zajac’s eyes lit up as he only had to beat Scott Clemmensen.
Zajac celebrated emphatically after scoring the overtime-winning goal in Game 6 that extended the Devils’ playoff run to a decisive Game 7 in Florida. His teammates mobbed him and overjoyed fans at the Prudential Center covered the ice with playoff towels.
It’s special anytime a player scores in overtime, but it meant that much more as Zajac gave everything to get to this moment.
“He’s had a hard year, a long year, a frustrating year, so it’s got to be rewarding and satisfying for him to get that one,” Parise said after the Devils 3-2 victory.
Rehabbing can be a quiet and lonely place for a hockey player. Especially for Zajac who played 401 consecutive games before suffering the injury.
Devils’ head coach Peter DeBoer described what it took for Zajac to make it back during his post-game press conference.
“I saw first hand what this guy worked through with eight months of rehab and the setbacks, (being) in the gym by yourself, and (being) left behind while the team’s traveling. It’s not a lot of fun,” DeBoer explained.
Zajac has come to symbolize the Devils’ spirit during these playoffs. Sometimes it’s ugly, sometimes it’s difficult but keep chipping away and the results will eventually go your way.
It’s human nature to put your head down and become frustrated when you’re out-shooting your opponents at a 42-to-16 margin but the Devils didn’t lose their focus which was the case in Game 5.
“I think guys stayed with it. We didn’t change the way our coach wanted us to play. It’s important when you get to these type of games to believe in your forecheck and the way you create some offense. We did that and got rewarded for that today,” Martin Brodeur detailed.
Zajac was willing to put team goals ahead of the longevity of his career. There was a moment when it appeared his season could be over but now, he’s enjoying a terrific playoffs and leading the Devils with 6 playoff points.
“There was a conversation whether it was smart to come back or whether it was better to wait until next year for his long-term health. He was a motivated guy and once it started to feel better, you could tell he wasn’t going to be denied jumping in and contributing,” DeBoer said Tuesday night.
DeBoer continued, “He’s a great player and he’s an even better guy. It couldn’t happen to a better person and with what he went through. I think we’re all happy for him and let’s do it again in Game 7.”
How important has Zajac’s return to full-health been for the Devils in the playoffs? Will the team’s momentum carry into Game 7? Share your thoughts below and send your tweets to @HartnettWFAN.