Life is good for Zajac

Devils forward Travis Zajac his team's defeat of the Flyers in Game 5 of their NHL Eastern...

Devils forward Travis Zajac his team's defeat of the Flyers in Game 5 of their NHL Eastern Conference semifinal series at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Penn., May 8, 2012. (TIM SHAFFER/Reuters)

PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:46 PM ET

WINNIPEG - Travis Zajac was talking about his own flesh and blood, his newborn son, but the words could easily have applied to himself.

“He’s doing great,” Zajac, on the phone from New Jersey, Friday, said about his first child, Zenon, 16 weeks old. “Moving more every day. He’s starting to get a little more aware every day.”

That assessment from the proud new dad would have fit Zajac to a tee going into these playoffs.

After missing 67 of New Jersey’s first 75 games of the season following an achilles tendon tear just before training camp, the 26-year-old Winnipegger got the last seven games to prepare himself for the Devils’ Stanley Cup chase.

Apparently, it was enough.

Because with five goals and five assists, Zajac is clipping along as New Jersey’s No. 2 scorer going into the Eastern Conference Final.

This is virgin territory for the 6-foot-3, 200-pound centre, who in his first five NHL seasons never made it past the second round.

“It’s exciting,” Zajac said. “It’s rewarding, knowing how hard we’ve worked to get there.”

Nobody’s worked harder than No. 19, who went through rehab twice, after his first comeback was cut short in January.

At the time, Zajac wondered if his season was over, a shocker to anyone’s system, let alone someone who’d played all 82 games each of the last four years.

“It’s definitely rewarding to know the season wasn’t completely lost,” Zajac said. “I was lucky enough to get some games in and get back for the best time, which is playoff hockey.”

It’s amazing, too, how a new bundle of joy can give perspective to a regular season wrapped in disappointment.

“Since the birth of my son, it made it a lot easier to go through it all again,” Zajac said. “We’re fortunate enough to play something we love and have a job doing it. You kind of figure that out once you have a kid. You go home and think you had a bad day, but you get to enjoy your son and family and realize it’s not that bad at all.”

The Devils have become a pretty tight-knit family, too, thanks to a harrowing first round that saw them trail Florida, three games to two.

Two overtime wins followed, including a double-overtime job in Game 7.

Getting the winner in Game 6, the second playoff overtime goal of his career, was the comeback kid from Winnipeg.

“There’s going to be some adversity,” Zajac said. “We faced it in the first series. When you overcome that as a team, you start to believe a little more in each other. Things just kind of snowballed from there.”

A relatively easy five-game elimination of Philadelphia ensued, and suddenly the Devils are within sniffing distance of their first Stanley Cup in nine years.

“They always say the first series is the hardest one to win,” Zajac said. “Against Philly, we were finding our game at the right time. We just figured out what made us successful and kept doing that. A lot of it’s just momentum.”

Zajac has plenty of his own going, too.

It didn’t hurt that Devils coach Peter DeBoer put him on a line with Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk right after his rehab.

“When those guys are scoring, your confidence is going up,” Zajac said. “They play at such a high speed they’ll get anyone back into shape or back into game speed in just a matter of time.”

Zajac has no complaints about where he is in the grand scheme of things, either.

Hockey-wise, he’s much better off than a year ago, when the Devils missed the playoffs and he suited up for Team Canada at the World Championship.

And at home, well, things couldn’t be better.

Which raises an impossible question: how does a playoff overtime goal compare to that first smile from your first-born?

“That’s a tough one,” Zajac said, laughing. “That first smile is unbelievable.”


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