Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Secret is out -- Travis Zajac is a Star in the Making

By Larry Wigge

Travis Zajac and Zach Parise go together like two peas in a pod.

They are center and winger, both from the University of North Dakota. Both worked well together there, so why not in the NHL. They feed off one another.

Zajac is the straw that stirs the drink and prefers to stay in the background to Parise's star status.

The secret is out, Zajac is a star too.

For much of the 2011-12 season, Zajac was a lost man ... a player without a team.

In August, Zajac stepped awkwardly and injured his Achilles' tendon. For four months, Travis labored through rehabilitation and finally was able to return to the Devils' lineup in mid-December. Unfortunately for Zajac, his comeback was cut short after just eight games.

His own desperation to return to the ice had come back to bite him. Zajac's Achilles' tendon wasn't strengthened enough and was told by doctors to quit skating and resume conditioning. Zajac was forced back to square one and began the process all over again, eventually returning on March 25, after missing another 37 straight games.

To say, it was a hellish eight months for Zajac would be putting it mildly.

"I was close," Zajac explained. "After that setback the first thing I was thinking about was where I am in my career. As much as you want to come back and play, you gotta look out for the future. So, yeah, it was in the back of my mind to shut it down.

"We knew that I probably could come back at some point in the season. I was lucky enough to get a few games here at the end of the year. Feeling good from then on it just kind of helped my confidence."

In just 15 games this season, Zajac totaled two goals and four assists. In the playoffs, he had six goals, including the game-winner in a 4-1 victory in Game 4 against the New York Rangers, to go along with five assists in 16 postseason games.

Rehabbing can be a quiet and lonely place for a hockey player. Especially for Zajac who played 401 consecutive games before suffering the injury.

"It sucked sitting out most of the year," said Zajac. "It's tedious stuff you have to do every day. And that gets annoying. But you look at the bigger picture. Eventually, you get back on the ice and it keeps you going."

Getting Zajac back was better than any acquisition for a centerman that the Devils could have pulled off at the trade deadline.

"Getting Travis back was probably 'The best trade deadline acquisition' we could've made," said Parise.  he said. "To see him come back finally and be healthy and be playing as well as he has been down the stretch for us was huge. It enabled us to get deeper as a team and everybody's clicking right now."

"He's our best centerman," Ilya Kovalchuk said. "It didn't surprise me.

The first good sign for Zajac was getting the game-winner in OT in Game 6 of the first round against Florida at 5:39 for a 3-2 Devils triumph.

"We wouldn't be here without him," coach Peter DeBoer said. "A guy who was at a crossroads where he could have stepped away and said let's go back at this next year. He worked and refused to take that road. He's been our most effective, our most consistent forward so far."

"It was pretty cool," Zajac said. "You always think about scoring an OT playoff goal. Everyone wants to ...

Zajac couldn't control his emotions of all that has happened to him.

"It's a fun time to play hockey and to compete at this level," Zajac continued. "But we want to win. That's what we want to do. And to be able to contribute in any way you can, it's fun."

For the 27-year-old veteran from Winnipeg, his whole career has been like a dream.

For Tom and Trish Zajac and their three other boys it has been an adventure. Tom work as gas station manager. He also conducts a hockey skills camp. Tom went to Denver on a hockey scholarship and earned a business administration degree.

"I enjoyed the game and when Travis, our oldest, started going to the rink, he enjoyed it and the other boys just followed," said the elder Zajac. "We've always told our boys that education is important. The direction I guess I pushed the guys was that I said, 'This is what's available if you want to work towards it and get yourself an education, which is needed nowadays and you get to do something that you like while you're doing it.' "

Darcy, 25, had a scholarship at North Dakota. Kelly, 23, played at Union College. Nolan, 19, is at North Dakota.

Travis remember his draft day very well. Zajac had enjoyed a 43-goal, 112-point season with Salmon Arm (BCHL). But, with the draft in Raleigh, N.C., it was all about European players -- Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Malkin went 1-2.

Sitting at 22, the Devils traded up two spots, sending a first and a third to Dallas. Zajac's agent seemed to know what was about to happen, but Travis wouldn't have believed it if he hadn't experienced it himself.

"I wasn't sure where I was going to go in the draft. I didn't think I was going to go first round and just sitting there during the draft, I remember my agent telling me that I was going to be up next with the 20th pick," said Zajac. "I'm like, 'No way.' I didn't believe him, and he was like, 'Yeah, watch.'

"I don't remember much. My heart was pounding a little. I was a little nervous walking down there. I remember getting on stage with Lou and David Conte and thinking to myself, 'Oh, I'm a lot taller than these guys.' It was fun. It was great to put on the jersey and the hat. That was probably the most exciting part for me was taking the pictures on stage when you put the jersey and hat on."

The draft book said: He uses good skating skill to control pace of the game. ... He's patient with the puck in drawing opponents to him. Then thrives on one-on-one battles. ... He's a clutch player who is not afraid to go into the corners. ... A confident puck carrier.

Travis Zajac is all of the above ... and more.

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