There’s a storm coming from the East. Right now, you probably just hear rumblings; what sounds like the percussive stomping of hooves bringing to mind horsemen and a black cloud of dust. It’s the memory of an unstoppable post-season killing machine that was, and is once again, the New Jersey Devils.
Hyperbole? Well, sure. But admit it: the Devs look real scary right now and their timing couldn’t be better. Martin Brodeur is back in net and looks as though he never missed a game, let alone 50. Brendan Shanahan has fit right in, just as expected. And Zach Parise has a very good shot at becoming the first New Jersey player ever to ring up 50 goals in a season.
And who is feeding Parise those pucks? It’s usually one of the more underrated members of the team and the one he has the most chemistry with, third-year pivot Travis Zajac.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound center is also enjoying his best NHL season to date, racking up 54 points in his first 64 games after a previous high of 42 in 2006-07 and a somewhat deflated 34 points last season.
“I think I learned a lot last year,” Zajac said. “It didn’t go the way I wanted it to and I realized how I needed to compete every night, winning the 1-on-1 battles.”
This year, Zajac is starting to win those battles and has been rewarded with a regular penalty-killing role and even more power play time, not to mention the trust of coach Brent Sutter in overtime.
Along with Parise, Zajac is flanked by another talented winger in veteran and captain Jamie Langenbrunner, who has acted as a mentor for his young linemates.
“He’s the leader on this team,” Zajac noted. “He competes, he knows how to win and he’s so consistent each game.”
For Zajac, the journey to the NHL has been an interesting one. While there were questions about Phoenix’s Kyle Turris before the draft because he had only played Jr. A hockey, Zajac went through the same league, the British Columbia League, years before. Undrafted by the Western League, the Winnipeg native set off to play for the Salmon Arm Silverbacks in the BCHL. He threw up a sick 112 points in his second year in just 59 games, prompting the Devils to select him 20th overall in 2004.
“I think I was a late-bloomer,” Zajac noted. “I had to grow into my body. I never even thought about being drafted.”
After two years at the University of North Dakota (and two games in the American League with Albany), Zajac began the ’06-07 campaign with the Devils and has never looked back. Now, with the stars aligning (both the cosmic ones and the skilled players in red and black), Zajac has a chance to be a part of a complete Devils team, the type that won Stanley Cups and made careers at the turn of the century.
“Everyone expected to have a good season,” Zajac said. “We have the personnel to make an exciting season a special season.”
And as the Devils roll – they’ve won 19 of their past 24 games – it’s hard not to think of what that juggernaut will do in the post-season this year, especially since players such as Brodeur, Langenbrunner, Bobby Holik and others have all clinched Cups for the Horned Ones in the past. Zajac, for one, tries not to bug the veterans about past glories.
“I think it makes them feel old,” he laughed. “We know how successful they were then and we want to have that special season.”
That rumbling you hear off in the distance? It’s getting closer.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column – The Straight Edge – every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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