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Zajac helps Devils handle Blackhawks

by Mike G. Morreale /

NEWARK, N.J. -- New Jersey Devils center Travis Zajac believes working hard and having fun can go hand-in-hand, even against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.

The proof came Friday when Zajac, Lee Stempniak, Kyle Palmieri and Mike Cammalleri scored, and Cory Schneider made 27 saves in a 4-2 victory at Prudential Center.

Zajac and his teammates wouldn't go as far as to say it was the biggest win of the season, but there's certainly a positive vibe emanating from the Devils locker room these days.

"I think the coaching staff has created an atmosphere around here that, whether we win or lose, it's all about coming to the rink to get better and enjoy the game," Zajac said. "I think that's been positive to have them create that kind of atmosphere. The players, coaches, everyone, wants to be around to have fun and work hard doing it."

Patrick Kane and Tanner Kero scored for the Blackhawks (7-6-1), who have lost five straight road games in which they've been outscored 19-8.

"I think when we have four lines clicking, everyone is working and doing the right things and our defense is better and offensive numbers will go up," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "There's a correlation there. We know what we have to do to be better and we'll have to address it."

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville pulled goalie Scott Darling with 6:42 remaining in the third period trailing 4-1. Kero scored on the Blackhawks' sixth shot with Darling on the bench with 1:26 left.

Kane extended his point-scoring streak to nine games with his ninth goal of the season with 1:18 remaining in the second, but by that time the Devils (7-5-1) had already built a four-goal lead.

Cammalleri gave them the 4-0 lead with his first goal in five games off a snap shot from the left circle 7:28 into the second.

"It's a good win and we liked the way we played, but we weren't perfect," Devils coach John Hynes said. "The two points are really important and the fact we won a hockey game is really important. We beat a very good team, but we have another game on Sunday too. It's good to enjoy it and we want to take the good things that happened [Friday] and build on those, but we have to find a way to be better going into Sunday's game (at home against the Vancouver Canucks)."

The Devils opened a 3-0 lead on goals by Stempniak, Palmieri and Zajac in the first period to chase starting goalie Corey Crawford (10 saves). Darling made 12 saves.

"It's big to come into this game against the Stanley Cup champion and play that way; you don't want to be in awe of them because that's when you give them too much time and space and bad things happen," Palmieri said. "That's what they thrive off. We had a game plan to execute and we did it, didn't sit back on our heels and got in their faces to take away their time and space."

Stempniak scored an unassisted goal at 3:48 for a 1-0 lead. Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson mishandled a return pass from Marcus Kruger in his circle and Stempniak stole the puck and scored his third of the season.

"I started it off with a real bad play in the first period there and we had an uphill battle," Hjalmarsson said. "We have to find a way to play better on the road. We gave up too many odd-man rushes and we have to keep it simple. With the injuries we have, we've got to get the puck deep and play better in our own end as well to help our goalies. It starts with me."

Palmieri scored his fourth of the season off a quick snap shot from the left circle at 17:48. Zajac won an offensive-zone draw against Andrew Shaw and Palmieri was there to pick up the loose puck and drive it past Crawford.

"It was a set play where [Zajac] ties up his stick off the draw and he kicked it back to me," Palmieri said. "He gave me a great shooting lane to throw it at the net."

Toews then engaged in the fourth fight of his NHL career, against Adam Henrique (third fight) at 17:54.

"It wasn't necessarily (to spark the team)," Toews said. "It was just a play that developed where both players got a little caught up there, so it was kind of a reaction thing. That's not necessarily my thing, as you all know. If you're trying to spark the team, I'd rather be on the ice making things happen in the offensive zone."

Henrique said, "I'll take that tradeoff any day; I thought our guys did a great job of responding after it too."

Zajac scored 20 seconds later, his sixth goal of the season, first at even strength. Devils defenseman Damon Severson skated into the right circle leaving the puck for Zajac, who took a shot while skating down the slot before knocking in his rebound at 18:14.

"[Zajac] had a big role (against the Toews line), and it's nice when a guy like Travis can have that type of a role, but then on the other side of it he finds a way to put the puck in the net too," Hynes said. "That's why he's such an important guy and such a good player in the League."

The Blackhawks have struggled to find consistency with defenseman Duncan Keith (knee) out with an injury the past eight games. Chicago has allowed 20 goals in the past five games after winning the first three games without Keith and allowing two goals.

The Blackhawks allowed eight consecutive goals; they blew a 5-2 lead and lost to the St. Louis Blues 6-5 in overtime on Wednesday.

"The Devils skate fast, they check, and don't give you a lot of room, so we had our work cut out as it was, let alone the fact that we were down 4-0 in the game," Toews said. "It's not the game plan we wrote up and we played hard in second half but that wasn't enough."

Chicago, who played without injured forward Marian Hossa and Keith, lost forward Artem Anisimov to a lower-body injury in the second period. Quenneville said Anisimov is day-to-day.

The Blackhawks could have Hossa (lower body, three games missed) back in the lineup on Sunday at home against the Edmonton Oilers.


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