The other day, Gerard briefly touched on this during his tribute post to Travis Zajac after his trade to the Isles, but I felt that a more in depth look at it is absolutely worthwhile. Zajac was a constant on a New Jersey Devils team that was going through a slow descent from perennial contenders to perennial basement dwellers. But while that shift was taking place, Zajac himself was a bastion of consistency, a solid two-way player who was great on the penalty kill, the best faceoff man for most of his 1000+ games with the team, and an excellent presence in the locker room.
Through all of that, however, perhaps the best play he should be remembered for is the goal against Florida in the 2012 playoffs that kept the team alive and brought the series to a game 7, one Adam Henrique would himself ice in double overtime. But that would have never happened had Zajac himself not iced game 6 with his overtime winner.
First, however, some perspective. Nowadays, it is easy to remember the Devils from essentially 1990-2012 as almost a monolith. They were a team that made the playoffs every single season, and it was basically expected that they would do so, not a surprise. Greatness was simply expected out of the team, and fans more or less took it for granted. Then, the shortened 2013 season came after the lockout and everything changed, fell apart, and since then the team has been a perennial basement dweller, and it is almost difficult to remember what it feels like to watch meaningful playoff hockey.
However, it really wasn’t like that, especially as us fans were going through it. The Devils from 1990-2012 were not really the same team all the way through. At the time, I remember things starting to feel differently after the cancelled 2004-05 season. While you might argue over specifics and whatnot, it almost felt like there were three phases to those dynastic Devils: the early years from their first playoff berth through the 1994 ECF loss to New York, the championship years from 1995-2004, and then the years of disappointment from 2005-2011.
Now, I was born in 1987, so I can’t speak much to that first phase, but I definitely remember the different feeling from phase 2 to phase 3. That final phase, it felt like the team would play great in the regular season, post somewhere from 100-110 points, then lose early on in the playoffs, usually in a 4-1 rout. And that happened too many times honestly. Between the team’s last Cup win in 2003 and the 2012 playoffs, the Devils won only 2 playoff series, one in 2006 in a sweep to the Rangers and one in 2007, 4-2 against Tampa. In both of those years, however, they then lost the next round 4 games to 1. After that, it got even worse, as they then went on to lose in the first round 4 games to 1 in 2008 and 2010. They managed to win 3 games in the 2009 first round before losing in game 7 to Carolina, but overall, it was a period of considerable disappointment for a team that had shown that it was better than that, a team that was capable of winning multiple Cups, not simply being an easy out in the playoffs.
So when 2012 rolled around, after missing the playoffs outright in 2011, at least from where I was standing as a fan, there was a lot of skepticism when the playoffs started. Would this be another first round exit? They hadn’t won a playoff series for 5 years at that point, which was a major drought considering what came before. So when the team went down 3 games to 2 against Florida in that first round in 2012, it just seemed like it might be more of the same, another quick exit.
However, enter one Travis Zajac. The Devils were really playing well in game 6, and if you look at the box score, the Devils managed to put up 42 shots on goal that game to Florida’s 16. They had the better run of play, but the game was 2-2 heading into overtime. Anything could have happened. But Zajac made sure that the Devils would stay alive and force a game 7.
Perhaps the best part about that play was that Zajac not only finished it after a real quality pass from Ilya Kovalchuk, but he also started that rush up the ice in the defensive zone. He’s the one who grabbed the puck out of the scrum in front of Martin Brodeur and started up the ice. He actually made a terrible pass across the ice in the neutral zone, but he stayed with it, and after Zach Parise got it up ice to Kovy, Zajac was ready and was already behind the Florida defense. Kovalchuk drew the defense’s attention and it let Zajac get free to the right of Scott Clemmensen, and when the pass got there, Zajac didn’t miss. I know Gerard posted this the other day, but it’s worth watching again:
In reality, that goal kick started that entire playoff run. The Devils of the previous 8 years were not ones to score that goal, get hot, and win the series. They were a team that folded in those situations, lost playoff series, and went to play golf way too early. But on that day, Zajac said no, and although he had a little help from Parise and Kovalchuk, he was the main catalyst in saying no, not today, and he made sure to ice that game 5:39 into overtime and force a game 7.
And as we look back on the last 15 years of Devils hockey, that was the best and really only run us fans have had to enjoy. Winning one playoff series in ‘06 and ‘07, only to get stomped on in the second round, was nothing to write home about. But that 2012 run was electric, and it almost didn’t happen. The team was off to the same lethargic start to the postseason that had plagued the organization for several years. But Zajac made sure to turn that around, and he deserves our eternal praise for that. While Henrique had the moment of those playoffs, perhaps the top 2 if you also include that game 7 double OT series winner against Florida, we better also never forget what Zajac did in game 6 simply to keep the season alive. Without him, Henrique’s moments never exist, and 2012 just becomes another season like the many that came before it after the 2003 Cup win.
And for that, Zajac should always get a long standing ovation whenever he comes back to play in Newark.