Zajac having hell of a time

PAUL FRIESEN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:33 AM ET

So if Alexander Ovechkin's red-hot stick routine was suitable for his league-leading 50th goal, what does a Winnipegger with the best plus-minus in the NHL do when he scores No. 20?

Travis Zajac did what he usually does: celebrate with his teammates.

"If I ever hit 50 goals that'd be different," Zajac was saying yesterday. "But not for 20."

Maybe not.

But what Zajac is doing in New Jersey this season is cause for some kind of celebration.

He not only hit the 20-goal mark, but he also centres the top line on a team near the top of its conference and boasts a sparkling plus-36, tied for the league lead, going into last night's action.

Chicago's Jonathan Toews may get most of the ink, but you could argue that the Winnipegger wearing No. 19 who's having the best year in the NHL is a Devil.

The 23-year-old is having a hell of a time, too, a two-way marvel on a team that has perfected two-way hockey.

No wonder his confidence is sky-high in this, his third year in the NHL.

"It's getting up there a lot," Zajac said. "You learn a lot your first couple of years in the league. I'm able to do more things offensively with the puck that I wouldn't have tried my first two years. It makes a difference."

The difference in Zajac's game is remarkable.

Last year he managed 14 goals, 20 assists and a minus-11 rating in what he admits was a disappointing sophomore season.

"I thought it was all going to come easier my second year, and it didn't," he said. "I forgot how hard you have to work to be successful in this league."

Zajac got down, and his confidence suffered.

Going into this season, he vowed not to let it happen again.

And when Devils coach Brent Sutter put him in big-time situations -- like playing on a line with Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner -- he delivered.

"I've always tried to be a defensive guy who can play on the PK and in the last minute of the game, and win faceoffs and be reliable defensively," Zajac said. "All the great players can play both ends of the ice."

But they don't all lead the NHL in plus-minus.

Still, in New Jersey it's all about team. And that's what has Zajac most excited.

"We don't mind who's scoring goals and who's getting the points, as long as we're winning," he said. "This is one of the closest teams I've been part of since I've been here. All the older guys hang out with the younger guys. You don't always see that."

Combine that dressing room chemistry with New Jersey's mix of youth and experience, and you have all the ingredients for a long playoff run.

It'd be a great way to cap the final year of Zajac's initial NHL contract.

He couldn't have picked a better time for his 20th goal, either -- and not just because he's due for a new deal this summer.

Zajac scored it in that historic game against Chicago last week, helping Martin Brodeur break the NHL record for victories by a goaltender.

"Being part of history was a special moment," he said. The highlight of his season, so far.

He's playing next to a pretty special player in Parise, too, the ball of energy whose 41 goals are second only to Ovechkin.

"He's fun to watch out there," Zajac said. "He's such a competitor. He wants to score every shift. His competitiveness just wears off on me and the rest of the team."

Kind of like the enthusiasm Ovechkin brings every night.

In case you're wondering, this down-to-earth Winnipegger loves the Washington star's celebrations.

"I don't think it was over the top," Zajac said. "I'm all for it. A lot of guys feel that way, too. When you score as many goals as Ovechkin does and he's still excited, it's great to see."

And if Zajac ever gets to 50, look out.


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