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X-Factor: Zajac a solid Devils-Flyers rivalry addition

by Brian Hunter

As Atlantic Division rivals, the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers played their customary six games during the 2011-12 regular season, with each team winning three times.

One player the Flyers didn't see in any of those meetings was Devils center Travis Zajac.

When the teams faced off in the Devils' season opener, Zajac was in the middle of rehabbing an Achilles injury that required surgery over the summer. During their second-half matchups, Zajac again was out of the lineup -- he returned for eight games in late December and early January, but then was forced to miss an additional 37 games -- on top of the 30 he sat out at the start of the season -- after the injury flared up again.

Zajac rejoined the Devils in late March and coach Peter DeBoer quickly returned him to his status of seasons past as the team's No. 1 center, on a line with star scorers Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. Zajac finished the regular season with just two goals in 15 games, but in New Jersey's first-round series win against Florida, he was their leading scorer with three goals and six points -- including an overtime goal in Game 6 that allowed the Devils to stave off elimination.

"I wanted to play my best hockey," Zajac told The (Bergen) Record. "I thought I was capable of that. I was feeling better every game. It's just about getting some confidence and kind of rolling with it."

Travis Zajac
Travis Zajac
Center - NJD
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 3 | PTS: 6
SOG: 15 | +/-: 0
Zajac, who turns 27 next month, is trying to return to the form that saw him total 45 goals, 129 points and a plus-55 rating over two seasons from 2008-10. His struggles last season mirrored those of his team, as New Jersey missed the playoffs for the first time in 15 years and Zajac slipped to 13 goals, 44 points and a minus-6 rating. The Devils flourished this season, but for the most part he wasn't there to take part in the rebound.

Now that's starting to change, and the Devils' offense is all the more dangerous because of it.

"If any team would miss their best centerman, it hurts," Kovalchuk told after setting up Zajac's OT goal against the Panthers. "We were missing him for almost all year long. Then he came back and gave us a lot of jump. He scores big goals."

He also gives the Devils veteran experience and faceoff ability on the top line that rookie Adam Henrique, for all his attributes as a Calder Trophy finalist, might not be able to provide. Zajac has participated in the playoffs in five of his six NHL seasons, totaling 35 games, and his 58.9-percent success rate in the circle was tops on New Jersey in the first round and eighth in the League.

Zajac's strong two-way game will make him a vital player against a Philadelphia team that scored 30 goals while eliminating Pittsburgh in a six-game conference quarterfinal, and his ability to complement Parise and Kovalchuk offensively makes the Devils' top line that much harder to defend.

"Pete [DeBoer] made it easy on me putting me with Kovy and Zach," Zajac said. "They're two of the best players in the world. He put me in a great situation with them. They make the game easier. It's fun to play with them. They compete hard, so it wears off on you."

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