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Parise, Zajac, Kovalchuk reunited on top line

by Eric Marin / New Jersey Devils
The Devils have loaded up their first line and will go with a top trio of Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk for tonight's home meeting with Tampa Bay.

Martin Brodeur starts in goal. Anton Volchenkov (lower body) returns after missing two games.

"I think all three of us are pretty excited about it," Parise said of his new linemates. "Travis and I have obviously played really well together, we've both had career seasons playing together. And Kovy and I have, I think for the most part, played well together this year. I'm excited about it. I think we'll complement each other well and if we play the right way, if we don't cheat offensively, I think we're going to get a lot of good chances."

Parise, Zajac and Kovalchuk broke training camp as a line last year and combined for two goals, three assists in the season opener against Dallas. But the Devils stumbled in the early going and a knee injury would limit Parise to just 13 games.

"[Zajac] had one three minutes into the game and I was like, 'Whoa, here we go, this is going to be fun,'" Parise said, recalling the 2010-11 home opener.

Parise has played significant stretches this season with Adam Henrique at center and Kovalchuk at right wing. But since Zajac returned to the lineup Sunday in Pittsburgh, Parise has skated with Patrik Elias at pivot.

In his two games back, Zajac has had Kovalchuk on his right wing. Alexei Ponikarovsky was slotted as Zajac's left wing Sunday before Henrique had the opportunity on Tuesday.

Petr Sykora will move back to the second line with Elias and Dainius Zubrus. The Devils have scored 11 goals in their last eight games and want to find a higher gear offensively before the puck drops on the playoffs.

"We're looking for combinations that work, that I can trust; I think I've said that," coach Peter DeBoer said. "The Elias unit is one group that I think has been a constant all year. They've given us a consistent game, maybe not offensively consistent as you would like, but you know you can trust them on the ice. I believe they're capable of reproducing some of the things they did at different stretches this year on a consistent basis."

Zajac saw his ice time increase to 15:56 on Tuesday, up from 13:31 in his first game back from Achilles tendon soreness. DeBoer believes he's ready to take the next step.

"We want to keep those guys together, and I think it's natural that, with Travis's history playing with both Kovy and Zach at different points, that we would get to this point once he got back," DeBoer said.

Both Henrique and Elias are left-handed shots. Parise indicated that Zajac being a righty gives them an advantage.

"It makes a huge difference," Parise said. "For me, I like to have a right-shot center. It's easier on the breakouts for me. For him, I guess it's more natural."

Parise also expects Zajac's face-off skills to have a big impact on their line.

"He's so good at draws and I think teams are so good now, if you lose a draw, you might not get the puck back the whole shift," he said. "But if he's winning more than 50 percent, 60 percent of the draws, you're going to have the puck more. He's good in our zone so we don't spend a lot of time in our zone. I think we think the game alike, so we almost know what the other guy wants to do, what he's thinking."

The Devils are hoping these lines can click with five games to go in the regular season. With their magic number down to three points, they can clinch a playoff spot with a win tonight and a Washington loss to Boston.

"Ideally, we'd like to have everything set," Parise said. "But you run into something different when you get a guy like Travis coming back late in the season. Also, it's not a secret we haven't been lighting up the scoresheet lately. I guess we didn't give [DeBoer] much of a choice. We needed a little bit of a change. Now, hopefully these will stick."

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