When you plug a number one center into your lineup, it usually improves your team depending on how long it takes for the player to adjust to his new surroundings. That is, unless he is already familiar with the surroundings and players he is lined up with, which is the case for New Jersey Devils center Travis Zajac who missed a total of 67 games this season recovering from an Achilles Tendon injury.
He played in eight games (late December to early January) before suffering a setback, but since rejoining the lineup on March 25, the Devils went 6-1-0; losing the first game against Pittsburgh, then reeling off six consecutive wins to end the season and now head into their opening round series against Florida as the hottest team in the NHL. “Travis is a big piece for us,” said coach Pete DeBoer after the team’s regular season finale. “To add a top-line center with eight or ten games remaining, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we won six in a row. I think he’s a big part of that for sure.”
Coincidence? It’s possible, but maybe we are witnessing New Jersey’s full potential as they beat playoff (at Detroit, vs. Chicago, vs. Ottawa) and non-playoff teams (vs. Tampa, vs. NY Isles, at Carolina) during their final six match-ups. “Detroit is obviously a good team and for us it was a good test,” said Zajac. “For us to go into the playoffs on a winning streak and with some momentum, it’s key for us.”
Zajac’s numbers haven’t been too eye-opening since his late-season return (1 gwg, 2 assists), but watching him night-in and night-out you can see he is improving and beginning to look like the player that played in a team-record 401 consecutive games prior to this season. “I feel pretty much back to normal,” said Zajac after the season’s final game, a 4-2 victory against Ottawa. “The few games I’ve had here have been good, playing in different situations.”
Though he only played in fifteen games during the season, Zajac led the Devils in face-off win percentage (57.4) and after a few games he found himself back on the team’s top line — centering the team’s two best players: Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. “They are two of the best wingers in the league,” Zajac was quick to point out when asked about his linemates. “As a centerman it’s pretty easy to play with them.”
Zajac, a veteran of six NHL seasons, likes the team’s direction as they head into the playoffs under first-year coach DeBoer. “You look at the season we’ve had this year after (a disappointing) season last year, coach has had a big role in that,” said the 26-year-old center. “Pete’s made us compete every night; we are a detail team, we’re on the fore-check, we’re aggressive and he’s been a big part of that — and we’ve been successful because of that.”
The Devils will need Zajac to continue winning key face-offs, setting up Parise and Kovalchuk for goals and playing on special teams if they have any visions of advancing past Florida and qualifying for the second round of the playoffs for the first time since the Spring of 2007.
Dan Rice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.