Zajac, who missed more than three-quarters of the regular season with a sore left Achilles tendon, ripped home a wrist shot from the left circle 5:39 into overtime Tuesday night to enable the Devils to live another day with a 3-2 victory against the Florida Panthers in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series at Prudential Center.
The victory evens the series at three wins apiece, setting up a winner-take-all Game 7 at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Fla., on Thursday.
"I think we're ready for Game 7," Zajac said. "We knew we had to play well. There was probably a little pressure on us to win this game and give ourselves a chance, and now we go into Florida and it's one game."
Zajac, who actually missed one shift in the second after "tweaking something," now has three goals and six points in six playoff games this spring. He had two goals and six points in 15 regular-season contests.
"It'll have to be our best game against that team," Zajac continued. "They play well at home and we're going to have to duplicate [Game 6] and more."
Just seconds after a determined backcheck by Zach Parise disrupted Stephen Weiss' 2-on-1 breakout for the Panthers, Ilya Kovalchuk carried the puck into the Florida zone and slipped a pass to Zajac in the left circle. His quick wrister found the far corner past Scott Clemmensen.
Clemmensen thought Zajac fanned on the attempt, but the goal-scorer thought otherwise.
"He missed the shot and my defenseman may have come over and gotten a stick on it," Clemmensen said. "He was trying to shoot high, but it snuck under the pad."
Kovalchuk, one of the NHL's top guns, turned playmaker on the game-winner and drew the defense to him to give Zajac room to shoot.
"I thought Kovy made a great play on the goal," Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. "Not many guys in the League can come across the blue line like that, draw two people, and snap that pass in there. It was a great play by a great player."
It was a tough loss for Clemmensen, who stepped in for injured started Jose Theodore and kept Florida in the game by making 39 saves, including 15 in the second period.
"I just wanted to give us a chance to win," Clemmensen said. "We were able to tie it up in the second and we showed some urgency coming back. Now the advantage we have is home ice, something we earned. That said, there's two desperate teams and anything can happen. Game 7 should be a good one."
In order for the Devils to win their first playoff series since 2007, they'll have to accomplish something they haven't done in the postseason in four years -- win two in a row. That last occurred in 2007, when they won three straight to take their first-round matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games.
"Thing is, we weren't happy with Game 5, so we came back, looked at the tape, met, went through video and fixed most of problems we had," DeBoer said. "In Game 6, our battle level and offensive-zone time improved. We got shots to the net from the point and traffic and that's what the playoffs are all about. We figured out what went wrong, and fixed it, so the key now is that we carry this type of effort in Game 7."
The Panthers are seeking their first playoff series triumph since beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games in the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals.
"We all trust ourselves and trust our team game," forward Sean Bergenheim said. "[New Jersey] won one-on-one battles and that was the biggest key. They had more shots and many of those came from those lost battles. This series has gone back and forth, and I have no doubt we'll have the energy in Game 7."
Both goalies came up big during a scoreless third period. Clemmensen's denial of Alexei Ponikarovsky from the high slot with 10:58 left in the third was his best on seven shots in the final 20 minutes.
"I really didn't feel as though our team was frustrated despite all the shots," Zajac said. "We still knew we had control of this game, and if we kept putting pucks on net, we'd come away with the win."
Martin Brodeur, who faced just 16 shots in the game, made his biggest stop with 2:31 left in regulation when he denied Mikael Samuelsson from the right hash after tracking him across the crease and challenging the shooter.
"He picked up the puck off a turnover and went all the way across [circle to circle]," Brodeur recalled. "I kind of pushed off and tried to stay as compact as I could. I tripped a little bit on our defender but was able to get back up and stay tight and give him nowhere to shoot. I got it between my blocker and body."
The Devils missed a golden opportunity to grab an earlier 3-2 edge just six seconds into the third when Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell was whistled for delay of game after he scaled the puck into the crowd, giving New Jersey a two-man advantage for 29 seconds -- Scottie Upshall was already serving a roughing minor. Florida's penalty-killers, which included Marcel Goc, Mike Weaver and Ed Jovanovski at the start, did a superb job in limiting the Devils to just one shot on the ensuing two-man advantage and the remaining 1:31 of Campbell's penalty to keep the game even.
The Panthers scored a pair of goals in the second despite being outshot 16-4 to pull into a 2-2 tie after 40 minutes. The Devils had opened a 2-0 lead when Kovalchuk slammed home his team-leading third goal of the series after taking a back-door pass from Zajac in the left circle and connecting on the power play at 4:21.
Kris Versteeg snapped home a shot from between the circles after taking a pass from Stephen Weiss at 7:05 to pull the Panthers within 2-1. Bergenheim tied the game after collecting a loose puck at the right post and curling a shot into the cage at 12:49. Panthers defenseman Tyson Strachan took the initial shot that deflected off Brodeur's inside right pad to Bergenheim, who alertly picked up the puck after it trickled through Brodeur and tucked his shot home.
The goal gave Bergenheim three goals and five points in the series and 12 goals and 16 points in 21 career playoff contests. Just prior to Florida's 4-on-2 rush that led to the Bergenheim goal, Kovalchuk and Parise had fallen down in the Panthers end.
"We had a chance and Clemmer made huge saves for us," Bergenheim said. "We gave ourselves a chance but they won the game … they were the better team."
DeBoer certainly agreed.
"It was a gutsy effort and we deserved the win," he said. "We came out and played a really solid game. It got away from us in the second … Florida is such an opportunistic team. But now we have the opportunity in one game to keep moving forward here."
Bergenheim is certainly glad that one game will be on home ice. When asked if he expected plastic rats to rain down once again, he smiled before answering.
"Oh, yes, please bring them," Bergenheim said.
The Devils opened a 1-0 lead at 16:37 of the opening period when fourth-line wing Steve Bernier retrieved a loose puck in the left circle and whipped a shot that beat Clemmensen through the legs.
New Jersey's last overtime playoff game was April 18, 2010, a 3-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 3 of the conference quarterfinals. The Panthers' last overtime game was April 25, 1997 -- a 3-2 conference quarterfinal-round loss in Game 5 to the New York Rangers.