Friday, June 22, 2018
Sports

Zajac a hidden story for Devils

NEWARK, N.J. — Most of the talk about the Devils and their run to the Stanley Cup final against the Kings has focused on Martin Brodeur, Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Peter DeBoer.

The 40-year-old goaltender, the team's two big goal scorers and the new coach all have played major roles in getting the Devils back to the final a year after missing the playoffs.

The guy who tends to get lost in all the talk is Travis Zajac.

This was almost a lost season for New Jersey's No. 1 center. He tore an Achilles tendon in August, had surgery the next day and tried to come back in December. He lasted eight games before calling it quits.

Over the next two months, there were times he thought his season was over. The 27-year-old continued rehab and eventually came back in late March. It took him a couple of weeks to find his game but one can argue he has been the best player for the Devils in the postseason.

"He is the type of player who does a lot of things well, from the faceoff to the forechecking, taking the body," Brodeur said. "He does a lot of little things. … That's what you have to look at, and who he plays against every single shift, and that tells you a lot about them."

His statistics aren't shabby either. Zajac has seven goals — tied for the team high with Kovalchuk and Parise — and five assists. He also is on New Jersey's power play and kills off penalties. He is averaging more than 20 minutes a game, third among the teams' forwards.

Not bad for a player who got in only 15 regular-season games.

"Getting this far I'm sure it's enjoyable for everyone but it really is for me," Zajac said Monday after the Devils practiced for the first time since winning the Game 6 clincher of the East final against the Rangers on Friday night. "Playing this late in the season really makes me feel like I didn't miss the whole season. It's really a fun time to play hockey."

DeBoer, who was forced to use roughly 10 different centers this season searching for a replacement, said Zajac's contributions are immeasurable.

"We wouldn't be here without Travis," DeBoer said.

BRODEUR LEANS TOWARD RETURN: Brodeur indicated after practice that he is unlikely to retire after this season even if the Devils win the Stanley Cup. The 18-year veteran is slated to become a free agent at the end of the season. "You know, I can't say no. But I doubt it," Brodeur said of retirement, according to ESPN.com. "I'm really enjoying this. Regardless of what happens this series, we made a great step last year, and we've got a good team together, a good coaching staff, and it's fun, you know?"

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