NEWARK, N.J. -- Not many players would come up with this comparison, but Ilya Kovalchuk did and it speaks to how highly he and the Devils think of Travis Zajac.
Center - NJD
GOALS: 7 | ASST: 5 | PTS: 12
SOG: 41 | +/-: -3
"When Sidney Crosby
came back for Pittsburgh, did they feel better? Obviously," Kovalchuk said straight-faced without a hint of sarcasm in his voice. "It's the same thing for us. When you're No. 1 center is coming back and we know he can be one of the top players in the League, it's always big."
Crosby and Zajac aren't often referred to in the same statement, and they're obviously in a different stratosphere when it comes to stardom -- but the meaning each has to his team is comparable, enough at least for Kovalchuk to hit on it.
The difference is while Crosby couldn't get the Penguins out of the first round after missing most of the regular season, the Devils insist they wouldn't be in the Stanley Cup Final without Zajac, who played in only 15 regular-season games after having surgery in August to repair a torn left Achilles tendon.
Zajac scored the overtime winner in Game 6 against Florida in the first round to keep New Jersey's season alive. He has put up 12 points on seven goals and five assists in 20 playoff games.
He doesn't have a point yet in the Stanley Cup Final, and the Devils trail 2-0 heading into Game 3 at Staples Center on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS). It's not a coincidence.
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"I love playing with him and practicing with him because he's so smart in both ends and he works his butt off, but he's not a flashy guy," Patrik Elias told NHL.com. "He does his job. He's got great hockey sense, great skills. He's strong. He's not going to go out and hit anybody all that hard or anything like that, but he's so annoying to play against, seriously."
Zajac initially hurt himself last August in Winnipeg while doing jumping exercises.
"I felt a pain when I was taking off," he recalled. "It stung a little bit. It feels like someone is hitting you in the back of the calf with a baseball bat. It's a weird feeling, but definitely I knew something was wrong."
Something was very wrong. He had to have surgery on Aug. 18 and was initially going to miss three months, meaning a return in late November or early December would be in order.
"I was like, 'Uh-oh,' " Elias said, recalling his reaction when he heard about Zajac's surgery.
Zajac came back to the Devils and made his season debut on Dec. 16. It was too soon.
"At first I felt all right, but as games went on I felt a little weaker and soreness," he said. "Instead of trying to push through it, talking with the doctors we said we'd take a step back, take some time off, and make sure we got it right the second time."
The second time didn't come until March 25. It was right on time.
"It's not an easy injury to come back from, and he's done it tremendously," Elias said.
Zajac hasn't experienced any of the same soreness or pain that he had the first time around, and the Devils have been a much more balanced and better team since he returned with seven games left in the regular season. They lost the game on March 25 to the Penguins, but won the last six games of the season.
Clearly they haven't skipped a beat in the playoffs, even if they trail the Kings by two games, both decided in overtime, in the Cup Final.
"Getting him back, he makes our team that much deeper," said center Adam Henrique, a beneficiary of Zajac's injury because it helped give him a chance to play between Zach Parise and Kovalchuk to become a Calder Trophy finalist. "Obviously not having him for the majority of the year was tough. He's one of our leaders. He's one of our best players. He's a guy that we rely on in big situations."
Henrique, who actually was recalled after Jacob Josefson broke his clavicle on Oct. 21, was and still is that go-to-center to a degree. But with Zajac in the lineup, coach Peter DeBoer was able to bump Henrique down, making him a more comfortable fit as a third-line center for most of the playoffs. He's now centering the second line.
"I think he was probably the biggest acquisition we could have made after the trade deadline without having to get rid of anybody. He enables our team to be that much deeper. We're able to roll all four lines more. He's been a huge part of why we've had success." -- Adam Henrique
Josefson, who returned in January only to break his wrist in early April, returned to the lineup in the Eastern Conference Finals and is now playing on the third line.
Zajac, though, is the first-line guy. He plays nearly 21 minutes per game, including close to two minutes on the penalty kill and more than three minutes on the power play.
"I think he was probably the biggest acquisition we could have made after the trade deadline without having to get rid of anybody," Henrique said. "He enables our team to be that much deeper. We're able to roll all four lines more. He's been a huge part of why we've had success."
Huge enough to draw a comparison to Crosby.
"If I was looking to build a team," Elias said, "I would take him [Zajac] right from the get go."
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