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Zajac's OT winner gives Devils edge

by Brian Compton

Brian Compton | Staff Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Travis Zajac picked an ideal time to end a long scoring drought.

After going the previous 15 games without a tally, the 23-year-old scored 4:58 into overtime on Sunday night, lifting the New Jersey Devils to a thrilling 3-2 victory against the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal at the RBC Center. Well, thrilling if you are a Devils fan; less thrilling and more chilling for the hometown Hurricanes fans.

New Jersey now has a 2-1 series lead and can grab a commanding edge with another victory in Game 4 here on Tuesday.

Zajac, who also had an assist, help end another slump on Sunday -- the Devils had lost their previous five overtime games against Carolina, including Friday's 2-1 loss at Prudential Center. Martin Broduer, of course, was in goal for all of those losses.

Budding superstar Zach Parise had plenty to do with the game-winner, as he made a nifty move around Carolina forward Chad LaRose before putting the puck towards the net. Zajac collected it after it went off the skate of Anton Babchuk and fired his own rebound past Cam Ward.

"I think it was a 3-on-3 coming in," Zajac said. "Zach made a nice move around LaRose and was able to get a quick shot on net. The puck actually just bounced out to me and I had two whacks at it to get it by him, and I was able to do it."

And, in the process, end a no-goal streak that lasted just over a month. Zajac, though, wasn't concerned because of the opportunities he and Parise consistently generate. They had a new linemate on Sunday, as Brian Rolston filled in admirably for injured captain Jamie Langenbrunner.

"You're definitely gripping your stick a little tighter, but it's bound to come," Zajac said. "I was getting chances. I just had to find a way to bury it and I was able to do that tonight. If you're not getting those chances and you're not getting an opportunity to score, then you're going to start asking questions."

New Jersey coach Brent Sutter was happy to see his No. 1 center end the drought in such dramatic fashion.

"It's always nice to be rewarded on the points side of it, but I wasn't too worried about it," Sutter said. "He's a very important player for us and he's very responsible in all three zones. Players like that, they sort of pay attention to detail. The goals will be there. You've got to play through it. It's not like he hasn't been playing well. He's been playing pretty good."

The line of Zajac-Parise-Rolston played effectively throughout Game 3, including scoring the game's first goal.  After a tenacious job of forechecking by Rolston forced Hurricanes defenseman Joni Pitkanen to turn the puck over, Zach Parise notched his third goal in as many games at 6:04 of the first.

But Carolina quickly evened the score when Ryan Bayda notched his first postseason goal just 31 seconds later. After Jussi Jokinen whiffed on Scott Walker's feed from behind the net, Bayda gathered the loose puck in the slot and ripped it past Martin Brodeur (28 saves) to make it 1-1.

"Our compete level was there. We battled back," Carolina center Eric Staal said. "We just didn't get it done in overtime."

Brian Gionta restored the Devils' lead when he capitalized on a turnover deep in the Hurricanes' zone by defenseman Joe Corvo with 8.6 seconds left in the first, but Carolina fought back again as Chad LaRose redirected a shot from Patrick Eaves past Brodeur with 4:30 left in the second, just moments after the 'Canes failed to convert on a 52-second two-man advantage.

New Jersey weathered the storm in the third period -- it was outshot 11-8 -- and headed to the locker room with a chance to avenge the overtime loss in Game 2. The Devils outshot the Hurricanes 5-2 in the extra session, playing aggressively from the initial faceoff of OT.

"We couldn't be scared to make a mistake," said Zajac, who admitted the locker room was more relaxed after this third period as opposed to Friday. "We just had to go out and create scoring chances."

With Jamie Langenbrunner out of the lineup, Brian Rolston stepped up and used his body on Joni Pitkanen behind the Hurricanes' goal, causing the Carolina defenseman to turn the puck over on Zach Parise's game-opening tally at 6:04 of the first.

Devils defenseman Paul Martin, who blocked five shots and played nearly 30 minutes.

New Jersey had a four-minute power play late in the first period after Ryan Bayda got his stick in the face of Devils defenseman Bryce Salvador. While New Jersey generated a couple of quality chances, it failed to capitalize on a golden opportunity to take the lead.

In 15:17 of ice time, Carolina forward Patrick Eaves had six hits, three takeaways and also earned the primary assist on the Hurricanes' second goal of the night.

After stressing how important it was to remain disciplined, all Devils coach Brent Sutter could do was watch as Bobby Holik placed the butt-end of his stick in the face of Carolina's Joe Corvo midway through the second period. It led to what would later become a 52-second two-man advantage for the Hurricanes, who erased a 2-1 deficit on a goal by Chad LaRose just after the Devils got back to even strength.

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