Zajac plays hero as patient Devils push Panthers to seventh game
NEWARK, N.J. -- It came as no surprise that a game between the Devils and Panthers went to overtime. After all, Florida led the league with 25 extra sessions this season; New Jersey was close behind with 22. If anything, it's shocking the teams hadn't needed more than regulation before Game 6 on Tuesday night. At times, it looked like a marathon was in the making as they traded chances early in the extra frame.
But it took just 5:39 before the stalemate was broken by Travis Zajac, the Devils' once-Ironman who missed all but 15 games this season with a torn Achilles tendon. In hero's fashion, the top-line center had been missed by New Jersey for so long sent a reminder of his value into Florida's net.
"I saw first hand what [Zajac] worked through, with eight months of rehab and the setbacks, being in the gym by yourself and on the ice by yourself, being left behind while the team is traveling," Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. "It's not a lot of fun, and [so] it couldn't happen to a better guy, for all the work he put in to get back to this point."
Zajac looked no worse for wear as he streaked down the left side and took a pass from winger Ilya Kovalchuk, who drew two Florida defenders with him as he gained the blue line. The open space Kovalchuk created gave Zajac just enough time to settle the puck and snap a shot through goalie Scott Clemmensen and send this series back to Sunrise, Fla., for Game 7 on Thursday night.
Zajac's shot was one of the few Clemmensen couldn't handle on Tuesday night. The journeyman goalie, filling in for the injured Jose Theodore and getting his second career NHL playoff start, made 39 saves in the losing effort.
Knowing they would face a desperate team, the Panthers seemed to start the game tentatively, focused more on containing New Jersey than generating offense of their own. Breaking up the Devils' cycle and playing them close, the Panthers gave little room, forcing New Jersey to make decisions quickly. So while the Devils had plenty of looks on Clemmensen, the quality of those chances weren't particularly stellar. Of New Jersey's 13 first-period shots, eight came from beyond 30 feet; five from beyond 40 feet. But sometimes, quantity matters.
"He was seeing pucks, and anyone's going to stop them if they see them," Devils captain Zach Parise said. "But the good thing is that we threw 40 at him. You just assume one's going to go in sooner or later."
With the Devils outshooting the Panthers 12-3 late in the first, one finally went in. With 3:23 left in the opening frame, a clean offensive zone faceoff win set up defenseman Peter Harrold for a point shot, which was tipped in the slot by center Ryan Carter. Clemmensen handled the tip, but the rebound went off to his right, leaving a chance for winger Steve Bernier to sweep the puck through the goalie's feet. It was the fourth goal generated by the Devils' fourth line in the series, one fewer than their top line at even strength.
"Our fourth line, I can't overstate their importance through the first six games of this series," DeBoer said. "[Bernier] is a playoff-type guy. He's a big body, likes to forecheck, wins battles. He's an underrated player."
Special teams, too, have played an important role throughout the series, usually in the Panthers' favor. But early in the second, New Jersey's power play connected, extending their lead with a tic-tac-toe play. With crisp puck movement, Zajac, stationed down low on the goal line, spotted Kovalchuk pinching in from the opposite point and put a perfect pass in the crease for him to tap in.
But it took less than three minutes for the Devils' two-goal advantage to shrink. The Panthers' ability to pounce on opportunities -- whether on the power play or by taking advantage of turnovers -- had staked them to a 3-2 series lead.
"They're a team that doesn't go away," Parise said.
And when they saw their chances, the Panthers pounced again. Seven minutes in, center Stephen Weiss confidently carried the puck into the zone, gaining speed down the left side and getting position on both David Clarkson and Bryce Salvador. Strong on his skates, Weiss put a pass on the stick of linemate Kris Versteeg in the slot. The winger snapped a low shot through Brodeur's feet, scoring his third goal of the series.
Nearly six minutes later, the Panthers would tie the game on a 4-on-2 rush created because Kovalchuk and Parise were tripped up in their own end. As Florida gained the zone, defenseman Tyson Strachan, the fourth man in, took a shot that went through Brodeur's pads and skittered wide of the net. Winger Sean Bergenheim, positioned at the goal line, had an easy put-in to draw even. It was Florida's eighth shot of the game.
"[They're] a really opportunistic team," DeBoer said. "But I thought we deserved the win, and we got it."
A workmanlike third period, in which the Devils kept Florida to just three shots, was more characteristic of how New Jersey wants to play, DeBoer said, and it set the tone for overtime.
"We were defensively solid, creating offense," he said. "I really felt it was just a matter of time, if we could just stay patient and keep that type of game going."
It's the game New Jersey will also want to take back to Florida for Thursday's decider. With hopes of winning their first playoff series since 1996, Florida has another chance to dismiss the Devils on home ice. The opportunity is there and the Panthers won't be an easy out.