NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The New Jersey Devils are still alive in the Stanley Cup chase because of a player who spent most of the season off the ice working his way back from an Achilles tendon injury.
Travis Zajac scored at 5:39 of overtime and the Devils avoided elimination and sent yet another Eastern Conference first-round series to a seventh game with a 3-2 victory over the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night.
“It’s fun to be back competing and playing at this time of year,” said Zajac whose season was limited to 15 regular-season games because of an Achilles injury in August that required surgery.
“When you have a setback, you never know what’s going to happen. As I went through the process again, I felt better and better. It was just about being patient. I knew I would be back at some time in the new year. I was able to get a few games in and prepare for the playoffs.”
The Devils will be playing in a Game 7 in Florida on Thursday because Zajac scored his biggest goal of the season on a counterattack against Panthers goalie Scott Clemmensen.
Zajac cleared the puck from in front of a harried Martin Brodeur and started a rush up the ice. Zach Parise took his cross-ice pass and gave the puck to Ilya Kovalchuk, who found Zajac skating down the left wing for a shot along the ice into the net.
“Kovy gets the puck at the far blue line and draws a couple of guys to him,” Zajac said. “He made a really nice play to me and I just wanted to get a quick shot on net. I was lucky to beat Clemmer there.”
It sparked a wild celebration in the corner and sent both teams packing for a trip to Florida.
“It’s been a frustrating year for him,” Parise said of Zajac, who had played in 401 straight games before his injury. “It’s got to be rewarding and satisfying for him to get that one. He’s played really well for us in the series. He’s a good guy to play with. He makes my job easier. He makes Kovy’s job easier.”
Clemmensen was outstanding, making 39 saves in an emergency start for the injured Jose Theodore.
“I think he missed it, the shot,” Clemmensen said of Zajac’s last shot. “My D also may have gotten a stick on it. I don’t think he was shooting where he wanted to, but went under the pad. I thought he was trying to shoot it high.”
Steve Bernier and Kovalchuk also scored and Martin Brodeur made 14 saves for New Jersey, which squandered a two-goal lead before forcing a deciding game.
“They are fun to be part of,” Brodeur said of playing in Game 7s. “When you’re a kid you always go out and say “this is Game 7 for all the marbles”. It brings back good memories because of that. You don’t need to be nervous. You need to embrace the situation and make the best out of it.”
Kris Versteeg and Sean Bergenheim tallied for Florida, which was looking for its first series win since 1996.
“We’re fine,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. “We’re going back home. This is where we are. It comes down to one game. Obviously you go to overtime and you’d like to put things to bed, but that’s the nature of it. It will make for a very exciting game on Thursday.”
Two other series in the conference are also headed to Game 7s. Washington will be at second-seeded Boston on Wednesday and Ottawa will be at the top-seeded Rangers on Thursday.
The Devils outshot Florida 42-16 in a game played before a sellout crowd.
Despite being outshot 29-10 in the opening 40 minutes, the Panthers rallied from a 2-0 deficit and entered the third period tied at 2-all.
The remarkable aspect was that the Panthers took only four shots in the second period and tallied on the two of the first three.
Versteeg cut the deficit to 2-1 at 7:05 of the period. Stephen Weiss centered the puck from along the left sideboards and Versteeg’s shot hit off the skate of Devils forward Alexei Ponikarovsky and into the open side of the net. Brodeur never had a chance.
The tying goal came at 12:49 after the referees ignored a slash by Bergenheim that knocked Kovalchuk to the ice. It led to a 4-on-2 rush. Brodeur made the initial stop on a shot from the between the circles by Tyson Strachan, but Bergenheim came late and tucked the rebound into an open net with teammate Marcel Goc hanging on the crossbar.
Kovalchuk gave the Devils a 2-0 lead earlier in the period, slam-dunking a pass from Zajac into the net with four seconds left on a power play. It was his third goal of the series.
The Devils had a big territorial advantage in the final 10 minutes of the first period and it finally paid off when Bernier beat Clemmensen with a bad-angle shot at 16:37 of the period.
NOTES: The NBA’s Nets played their final home game in New Jersey on Monday night and all the team banners and retired jersey numbers that hung from the rafters of the Prudential Center were gone on Tuesday. … Panthers D Jason Garrison, their leading goal scorer on the back line, missed his third straight game with a lower-body injury. …The Panthers did not discuss the nature of Theodore’s injury.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)