NEWARK, N.J. -- It was early January and Travis Zajac wasn't feeling right. His surgically repaired left Achilles tendon was acting up and he knew, despite the urge to battle through the pain, that he just couldn't play on.
That was the low point, when Zajac wondered if he would play another hockey game before next season.
"That put a damper on things," Zajac said.
PANTHERS VS. DEVILS
Devils beat Panthers in OT to force Game 7By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer
Travis Zajac ripped home a wrist shot from the left circle 5:39 into overtime Tuesday night, enabling the Devils to live another day with a 3-2 win against the Panthers and force a Game 7 back in Florida.
READ MORE ›
It's all forgotten now. The rehab, all those hours spent alone in the gym, by himself on the ice, away from the team -- all worth it.
Zajac is, for the second time in his Devils career, a playoff overtime hero. He kept New Jersey's season alive in Game 6 Tuesday against the Panthers by scoring 5:39 into overtime to give the Devils a 3-2 victory and force the series back to Florida for Game 7 Thursday.
That is the high point.
"This is what we play for," said Zajac, who also scored an OT winner in Game 3 against Carolina in 2009. "It makes going through the rehab all year worthwhile."
Zajac knew he was going to miss the first couple of months of the season after undergoing surgery in August. He returned in mid-December with the idea that he was ready.
He was fooling himself. Zajac played only eight games. He couldn't go on. He came back too soon.
While battling with his emotions during that low point, Zajac kept himself motivated and excited by thinking about moments like the one he had Tuesday at Prudential Center.
He knew the Devils were going well and would likely make the playoffs. He wanted to be a part of it in the worst way.
"It was just about being patient," he said. "I knew I'd be back at some point."
The Devils weren't so sure.
"It crosses your mind," coach Pete DeBoer said when asked if he thought Zajac might be done for the year after his setback. "There were a couple of times that you wonder, and there was conversation whether it was smart to come back or better to wait until next year for his long-term health. But, he was a motivated guy and once it started to feel better through the second rehab time you could tell he wasn't going to be denied."
Zajac didn't look like a guy that was about to be denied Tuesday, either. He even had to leave the bench to get looked at by trainer Rich Stinziano in the second period after getting tangled with Panthers center Marcel Goc and falling awkwardly.
DeBoer said he and his assistants began strategizing a new game plan in case Zajac wasn't able to return.
He was back on the bench before they could finalize the plan.
"He's a warrior," Devils captain Zach Parise said. "He's not going to go out of these games."
Zajac had already contributed by authoring a perfect pass out of the corner to set-up Ilya Kovalchuk for a power-play goal 4:21 into the second period. When the game got to overtime, it was Kovalchuk doing the work to make room for Zajac to become the hero.
He carried the puck across the blue line and drew both Dmitry Kulikov and Tomas Fleischmann toward him. Kovalchuk looked behind him and found Zajac alone on the left side. He delivered the pass and Zajac took a few strides before rifling a quick and low shot past Panthers goalie Scott Clemmensen, setting off a wild celebration in the right-wing corner.
"Not many guys in the League can come across the blue line like that, draw two people to you, and snap that pass in there," DeBoer said of the play Kovalchuk made. "It was a great play by a great player."
Zajac credited Kovalchuk as well with making a world-class play.
"When you play with Kovy, you just have to be ready for the puck," Zajac said. "You know he can pass through guys, through skates. So, you just have to be ready for it. He's a great passer as well as a goal scorer. He showed it there."
NHL PLAYOFFS CHANNEL FINDERFULL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE
Zajac has been showing his guts and his character -- along with his scoring touch -- since returning to the lineup on March 25. He's been at his best in this series and now has three goals and three assists, along with 61-percent success rate in the faceoff circle. He played more than 24 minutes in Game 6.
"I thought tonight he was outstanding," DeBoer said. "He might have been our best player on the ice. You get to this time of year your best players have to be your best players."
Zajac is one of the Devils best players. They managed to win 37 games without him thanks to the emergence of rookie Adam Henrique, but they are 14-6-1 with him in the lineup.
It's not a coincidence.
"If any team would miss their best centerman it hurts," Kovalchuk said. "We were missing him for almost all year long. Then he came back and gave us a lot of jump. He scores big goals."
None bigger than the one he got in Game 6. He saved the Devils' season.
"I firsthand saw what this guy went through with eight months of rehab, the setbacks, in the gym by yourself, on the ice by yourself, left behind when the team is traveling," DeBoer said. "(Scoring the winner) couldn't happen to a better guy for the work he put in to get back to playing for us."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl