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ZIP Line could be a record-breaker

by Eric Marin / New Jersey Devils
Kovalchuk's line with Parise and Zajac could be among NHL's best.
In their nearly 30-year history, the Devils have never had a player score 50 goals or 100 points. Could this be the season that not one but two Devils hit both of those elusive marks?

“Wouldn’t that be nice?” head coach John MacLean said Monday. “We’ll see how that plays out. This team’s never really been concerned with a lot of individual stats. It’s been more concerned about team stats and winning. So that’s what we’ll focus in on. If those are by-products of it, then that’s great.”

If their preseason chemistry is any indication, the trio of Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk stands to be one of the NHL’s best this season. Parise finished a point off the exhibition scoring lead with two goals, seven assists in four games. In five appearances apiece, Kovalchuk had three goals, four assists, and Zajac had two goals, three assists.

They finished 1-2-3 on the team’s preseason scoring list, and will look to stay hot when the Devils host Dallas to open the 2010-11 regular season on Friday.

MacLean’s squad could boast two 50-goal, 100-point players on that line alone.

“So me and one of those guys?” Zajac joked. “The intensity’s a little higher in the regular season, but the way we’ve been playing we’ve had some chemistry, we’ve made some plays. If we carry that over to the season, it’s definitely not out of the question for those two guys to have good seasons.”

Preseason potency’s nice, but Kovalchuk downplayed the value of exhibition totals.

“Preseason and regular season and playoffs is totally different,” he said. “You just try to get into game shape and feel out your partners a little bit. It’ll be totally different during the season. But for sure, we’ve got some chemistry. We know where we’re at and pass the puck real well to each other. We just have to be ourselves on the ice.”

Though no member of the line has ever reached the century mark in points, Kovalchuk has scored 52 goals twice, and Parise notched 45 in 2008-09 – just three shy of Brian Gionta’s club record. Zajac, no offensive slouch himself, is coming off of a career year in which he scored 25 goals and 67 points.

Over the last two seasons, Kovalchuk (84) and Parise (83) rank second and fourth overall in goals. Pack that much firepower into one line, and there’s no telling what they can do.

Parise and Zajac looking for a strong 2010-11.
“It’s possible, why not?” Kovalchuk said. “We’re going to play our game, work hard, work as a unit. I’m sure we’re going to be really tough to play against, but I don’t think it’s anybody’s goal to score 100 points or 50 goals. We want to make our team good and help our team to win games.”

The NHL’s leading goal scorer since he debuted in 2001-02, Kovalchuk is seeking his seventh straight year with 40-or-more. That shouldn’t be tough with linemates like these.

“I think we’ve had a lot of chances and we’ve been in the right position – not always, but most of the time in the right spots,” Kovalchuk said. “We didn’t give much to the other team in our zone and that’s very important. You want to create that momentum not just for our line, but for the whole team. If you’re on the ice and you have a good shift, that pumps everybody up and everybody starts to do better and better. Same as if another line had a good shift, we’re all excited. That’s what we build, that momentum.”

Zajac seemed surprised to learn that no Devil had ever reached either plateau. But dominant scoring wasn’t a part of the three Stanley Cup-winning teams that excelled with airtight defense and timely goals.

“It’s always been a team-first attitude here – defense first – and they’ve won championships because of their strong defensive play,” Zajac said. “They’ve also been able to score goals, and I don’t see it as being any different this year. We’re still going to be a team that frustrates teams with our defense, but we’ve got some guys now who can score a lot of goals. We’ll see how that carries over to the season.”

Flanked by two high-scoring wingers – and fresh off a summer in which he worked with a shooting coach – Zajac maintains the same outlook on his role as pivot.

“It’s my job to move the puck, create some plays offensively and get those guys the puck when they’re in good opportunities to score,” Zajac noted. “We’re all going to read off each other to score goals. I think it’s my job to play my game and not get away from that and not get away from what’s made me successful in this League.”

Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr formed the NHL’s last 50-goal duo in 1995-96 with Pittsburgh. Lemieux racked up 69 markers, while Jagr was right behind with 62. There have been 25 teams with two 50-goal scorers, including two seasons in which Edmonton had three: Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri and Glenn Anderson.

A tall order, but hardly unthinkable.

“I think that’s a lot to ask, pretty lofty expectations,” Parise said. “But we’re going to do well together. I don’t think we’re setting a certain number that we want to get to. I think offensively we like how we’ve played in the preseason. I’ll be the first one to say regular season’s a lot different than the preseason. I think we’re getting better as a line. If we stay together, I think we can have a lot of fun and do pretty well together.”

He forecasted a high-octane campaign.

“I think Travis is going to score a lot of goals, I think Kovy’s going to score a lot of goals,” Parise said. “You’re going to have each player doing different things every game. The other two guys are going to benefit from it. We all can put the puck in the net. I think all three of us will do well together.”

As the only Devil with three straight 40-goal seasons, MacLean knew his way around the net. The rookie head coach could be the catalyst for a more open style that results in greater opportunities for the gifted threesome.

“I think so, just because of the fact he’s allowing us to be creative offensively,” Zajac said. “As soon as we’re in the offensive zone, we’re allowed to do whatever we can to create some opportunities. I think it allows us to use our skills a little bit more and hopefully score a little more.”

MacLean believes one explosive line can ignite the rest of the team.

Said the coach: “Hopefully as we keep moving forward they’ll keep playing and putting it up and make it hard for other teams to play against us, and in saying that, push the other lines. A little competition with the lines is good also.”

The final verdict: the ZIP Line (Zajac-Ilya-Parise) could be a record-setting bunch for the Devils in 2010-11.

“Every game, each one of us has had a lot of good scoring chances,” Parise said. “I expect that to continue throughout the season, too.”

Of the four teams without a 50-goal or 100-point player in their histories – New Jersey, Columbus, Minnesota, Nashville – only the Devils existed prior to 1998.

Carolina, which relocated from Hartford for the 1997-98 season, has never had a 50-goal scorer, though Eric Staal has reached the 100-point mark. The franchise’s lone 50-goal man was Blaine Stoughton, who did it twice as a Whaler in the late-70s and early-80s.

Keith Tkachuk notched 52 goals in the Coyotes’ first year in Phoenix, but no 'Yote has reached 100 points since Winnipeg moved to the desert in 1996. Teemu Selanne scored 76 goals as a Jets rookie; Dale Hawerchuk accounted for six of the Jets’ eight 100-point seasons.

Pavel Bure collected seasons of 58 and 59 goals with Florida in 1999-00 and 2000-01. The Panthers, though, have yet to have a 100-point player. Mike Modano scored 50 in the Stars’ first season in Dallas, but the Stars haven’t had a 100-point skater since moving to Texas in 1993-94. As the Minnesota North Stars, they had three players with 50 or more goals and four with 100 or more points.

Four sent to Albany (AHL)
The Devils sent forwards Jacob Josefson, Mattias Tedenby; defenseman Matt Corrente; and goaltender Mike McKenna to Albany. Defenseman Rob Davison was placed on waivers.
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