Zajac keeps Devils alive

The Devils celebrate a goal against the Panthers during Game 6 of their NHL Eastern Conference...

The Devils celebrate a goal against the Panthers during Game 6 of their NHL Eastern Conference quarterfinal series at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., April 24, 2012. (RAY STUBBLEBINE/Reuters)

TERRY KOSHAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:10 AM ET

NEWARK - There were times during the NHL regular season when Travis Zajac wasn’t sure what he was going to be doing in the spring.

The New Jersey Devils forward suffered a torn Achilles tendon last August and didn’t play until December before a setback shut him down again.

Zajac eventually returned to the Devils lineup late in March, and Tuesday night, the 26-year-old kept his team’s season alive.

At 5:39 of overtime, Zajac’s shot slid under Florida Panthers goalie Scott Clemmensen, giving the Devils a 3-2 victory and setting up a Game 7 showdown in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal in Sunrise, Fla., Thursday night.

“When you have a setback, you never know what is going to happen,” Zajac said. “As I went through the process (of recovering) again, I felt better and better. It was about being patient and I knew I would be back.

“(Scoring in overtime) makes it better. We wanted to give ourselves a shot at Game 7.”

The Devils will attempt to do something they have not done in 28 consecutive Stanley Cup playoff games — win two games in a row.

Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2003, the Devils are 2-6 in elimination games. They’re also 2-5 in series they have trailed 3-2, beating only the Philadelphia Flyers in 2000 and Toronto Maple Leafs in 2001.

The Devils are 6-7 in their history in Game 7.

The Panthers have played just one Game 7 in their history, winning it in 1996 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Since the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, home teams are 12-12 in Game 7.

The Panthers had no choice but to use Clemmensen, who was pressed into action after Florida's No 1 goalie Jose Theodore suffered an unspecified injury. Theodore had knee trouble during the regular season and there's speculation that might have caused him pain during Monday's practice. Jacob Markstrom was recalled from San Antonio of the AHL to back up Clemmensen, a former Devil.

For the first time in the series, a team did not open the game with a three-goal lead. New Jersey came close, however, and it appeared the Devils were relatively safe when they went ahead a 2-0 at 4:21 of the second.

Overtime was not part of the thinking at that point as the Devils controlled the play and got goals from Steve Bernier and Ilya Kovalchuk.

The Panthers were unable to get much going, perhaps secure with the knowledge that no matter what happened, their season could not end on that night.

Florida provided little thrust against the Devils, who wound up out-shooting the Panthers 42-16.

But goals by Kris Versteeg and Sean Bergenheim in a span of under six minutes in the second period tied the game.

In the third, Clemmensen got a pad on a shot by Alexei Ponikarovsky from the lip of the crease, and Devils goalie Martin Brodeur made his biggest save when he stopped Mikael Samuelsson with minutes remaining.

Just before Zajac scored in overtime on a pass from Kovalchuk, Devils captain Zach Parise helped break up an odd-man rush by getting back to hassle Florida's Stephen Weiss.

“They won the one-on-one battles and that was the biggest key to why they won the game,” Bergenheim said. “They had a lot more shots and many of those came from the lost battles.

“The energy was not there. They were the better team and we need to change that.”

Zajac was the best Devils forward in the game. He also set up Kovalchuk's pretty power-play goal that gave the Devils a two-goal lead.

“It’s really special,” Devils coach Peter DeBoer said of Zajac’s goal after his determination to return to the lineup. “I saw first-hand what this guy worked through with eight months of rehab and the setbacks, being in the gym by himself and on the ice by himself, being left behind when the team is travelling.

“It couldn’t happen to a better guy for the work he put in to get back to this point for us.”

terry.koshan@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/koshtorontosun


Videos

Photos