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Devils' Zajac excited for return to action

by Alan Robinson
PITTSBURGH -- Travis Zajac is back, and just in time for what he considers to be the best part of the NHL season.
Zajac, limited to eight games this season by a sore left Achilles tendon, will be in the New Jersey Devils' lineup Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins, according to coach Peter DeBoer. Zajac had Achilles surgery in August, missed training camp and didn't play until Dec. 16, only to be sidelined again after playing against Ottawa on Jan. 2.
Travis Zajac
Center - NJD
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 2 | PTS: 3
SOG: 16 | +/-: -2
"Yeah, I'm pretty excited -- it's been a long year," Zajac said after being the last player off the ice following an optional morning skate Sunday. "It's probably the best time of the year to play hockey, the end of the year and the playoffs."
Zajac, 26, said it's been difficult getting over an injury that occurs, he joked, mostly to "basketball players and 40-year-old tennis players," but he is confident this is the time to return. The Devils have seven games remaining before the Stanley Cup Playoffs start.
"It was, as far as I'm concerned, a freak injury," he said. "I haven't had too many injuries in my career and I've been lucky that way. Coming back the second time I can kind of compare how I felt the first time. Knowing I'm a lot better now makes me feel a lot more confident that I can play and be 100 percent."
He added, "I'm 100 percent sure I'm healed and the Achilles is going to be the least of my worries."
Zajac will center a line with Ilya Kovalchuk, the Devils' leading scorer with 31 goals and 74 points, and Alexei Ponikarovsky, who has 12 goals and 28 points. He is happy that he'll be able to get in two weeks' worth of games before the playoffs start.
"It will help me out for sure, just getting back in a groove," Zajac said. "It's a tough time of the year to come back into the lineup, games are a lot tougher, but you've got to start somewhere. The team's been playing well together and I just want to come in and complement the team any way possible."
Zajac's situation somewhat parallels that of Penguins star Sidney Crosby, who was held out until late November with concussion symptoms, but played in eight games before being sidelined again. Crosby returned March 17 against the New York Rangers and has played in all six games since then.
"It's (more) tougher mentally than physically, just because you come back once and you have a setback, (so) coming back the second time, in your head, you want to make sure you're 100 percent," Zajac said. "And you don't know that until you get in a game that you're going to be all right."
Crosby was limited by coach Dan Bylsma to about 15 minutes of ice time when he came back, and DeBoer said that sounds about right for Zajac.
"When you have good players coming back in the lineup -- and I'm sure that Dan will say the same thing -- it's awful hard not to play them," DeBoer said. "They get into the game and they look good and they can help. Travis is similar for us. That will be the battle I'll have to fight within myself, to make sure that I keep at the right spot."
Zajac, a 25-goal scorer two seasons ago, had 1 goal and 2 assists and was a minus-2 in the eight games he played earlier. He has 90 goals and 162 assists in 416 career games.
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