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Return to health sees Zajac find scoring touch

by Mike G. Morreale

NEWARK, N.J. -- New Jersey Devils coach Pete DeBoer was pretty reflective when asked about the play of his rejuvenated top-line center Travis Zajac during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Zajac was limited to just 15 games by a sore left Achilles tendon during the regular season. He 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.


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Through nine playoff games, Zajac leads his team with five goals and eight points, and is tops with a 58.6 percent efficiency on faceoffs, winning 95 of 162 draws.

"I had Travis in the World Championships [for Team Canada] at the end of last season, so I have a little barometer where the top of his game is … I think he's right there again," DeBoer said. "We wouldn't be here without him."

Zajac, who turns 27 on May 13, had just two goals and four assists during the regular season. It was in the playoffs where he began to get his timing back -- he scored three goals and three assists in New Jersey's first-round series triumph against the Florida Panthers.

"He's another guy who was at a crossroads where he could have stepped away and said, 'Let's go back at this next year,'" DeBoer said. "He refused to take that road, and he's been our most effective and consistent performer in the playoffs so far."

One player very happy to see Zajac's production on offense is Patrik Elias, who has struggled to find the back of the net in the playoffs with two goals and three points in nine games.

"It's nice to see him putting pucks in … we need him," Elias said. "Certain guys, like me, are struggling to put the puck in, but that's what it's all about. It's teamwork here and it's nice that different guys are stepping in. He's pretty confident right now and the puck is finding the net for him, and that's great."

Zajac's biggest goal of the playoffs so far came in Game 6 against the Panthers when he struck 5:39 into overtime to give the Devils the victory and even that best-of-seven series, 3-3. The Devils would then close out the series in South Florida with a double-overtime thriller.

Devils goalie Martin Brodeur feels Zajac is at a point in his career where he's learning how to become a force in the League.

"He's at an age right now where he's starting to become a dominant player," Brodeur said. "He's getting some experience. He's doing a lot of good things out there, scoring some big goals for us and playing in a lot of good situations. After suffering that freak injury in the summer [on Aug. 17] it's never easy and tough mentally. I went through an injury like that [2008-09, elbow surgery] and it's tough, mentally. You have to be strong and sacrifice to get yourself back to the level where you need to be, but I'm sure he's glad that injury is history."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale

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