By now, we’ve all seen the goal. Travis Zajac slips the puck past Scott Clemmensen after a slick pass by Ilya Kovalchuk, and the Devils stave off elimination to force a Game 7 vs. the Panthers. It was pretty, it was gratifying, and it was the single biggest moment the Devils have had since moving into the Prudential Center in 2007.
Of course, Zajac gets the accolades, along with Kovalchuk, for executing on a prime scoring chance. But that play did more than send the Devils back to Florida for a Game 7 showdown with the Panthers. It was a prime example of the value of left wing Zach Parise to this team.
At 14:48 of overtime, the puck was in Florida’s zone when Parise tried to bump it out to Zajac and a deflection created an opportunity for the Panthers’ center Stephen Weiss to rocket into the neutral zone and prepare to attack the Devils net. Streaking down the right side with Weiss was Kris Versteeg, who had already registered a goal in the second period. Weiss and Versteeg have been Devil-killers this series, combining for 5 goals and 9 points, so a 2-on-1 breakaway was the nightmare scenario for New Jersey. As defenseman Bryce Salvador backed into the zone, frozen by the 2-on-1 rush, Parise, having turned on the afterburners, suddenly appeared at Weiss’ side and harassed him with a beautiful backcheck all the way to the faceoff circle, where Weiss fired a wide shot that careened off the boards. The pure hustle Parise showed to not only catch, but also disrupt, the Panther rush is itself worthy of praise, but he wasn’t done yet.
After Weiss shot the puck wide, the Panthers recover and manage another shot, which Brodeur directed to Zajac at 14:31. Zajac began to advance it up the ice with Kovalchuk and Parise, who was back in position despite having to play defense during the Panthers pressure. As the 3-on-3 developed, Zajac tried to pass the puck to Kovalchuk, who was streaking down center ice. The pass ended up behind Parise against the boards, and at this point (14:47) New Jersey’s breakout rush appeared to be stalled. Florida’s Mike Weaver saw the pass end up behind Parise and pounced, hoping to force a turnover. Parise, however, beautifully chipped the puck along the boards and past Weaver to a waiting Kovalchuk, who worked it into Florida’s zone, drawing two defenders, found Zajac, and the rest is history.
“This time of year, your best players have to be your best players,” head coach Pete DeBoer said in the post game press conference. “Zach Parise had a backcheck against Weiss in overtime that broke up a two-on-one…that’s what it’s about this time of year.”
Looming over the post season is Parise’s contract status after the season. He will become an unrestricted free agent this summer, and with his style of play and skill, it’s hard to imagine a team in the NHL that won’t pursue him. Parise is the rare star that will do the dirty work, as the final play of Game 6 demonstrated. Without his hustle and willingness to do whatever it takes to win, the Devils probably wouldn’t be headed to a Game 7.
His value to the team can’t be judged simply by goals, assists, or any other stat. Much like a former defenseman that wore #3, he is the heart and soul of this team.