NEWARK, N.J. – With the playoffs on tap next week, Travis Zajac is rounding into form at the right time for the New Jersey Devils.
Zajac broke a tie early in the second period with a power-play goal and the Devils nailed down at least the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference with a 3-1 victory over the New York Islanders on Tuesday night.
“I am getting there,” said Zajac, who has been limited to 13 games this season because of an Achilles’ tendon injury suffered during an off-ice workout in August. “I mean I feel better every game. I feel more confident with the puck and making plays every game. I am starting to hold on to it more and not throwing it away as I was a couple of games before. It’s just nice to contribute and help out.”
Zajac has played well the past week. He had a game-deciding goal in a shootout win over Chicago last week and he is centring the top line with Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk as his wings.
Parise, who missed most of last season with a knee injury, said the game-winner had to be big for Zajac, who had a goal in eight games after making his season debut in mid December before being shut down again because he came back too soon.
“When you are out that long, you want to come back and make an impact right away,” said Parise, who had two assists in the game including the primary pass on Zajac’s goal. “We’ve been trying to find him and maybe trying to find him too much. Tonight was good. It has to feel good for him to get that one before the post-season starts.
Coupled with Carolina’s 2-1 win over seventh-place Ottawa, New Jersey likely will be the No. 6 seed when the post-season starts next week. It has an outside shot at the No. 5 spot but it would have to win its final two games and have Philadelphia lose both of its games in regulation.
“We want to take care of business, put as many points on the board as we can, and see where the cards come out for the playoffs,” Devils coach Peter DeBoer said.
Patrik Elias added a goal and an assist, and Kovalchuk scored into an empty net in the final minute to help the Devils win their third straight. Johan Hedberg had 19 saves.
Matt Moulson scored for the Islanders, who have lost three straight.
Islanders goaltender Al Montoya said the Devils played their game to perfection. All he wants for the team’s last two games is complete games.
“We’ve done it through stretches of the year,” Montoya said. “We know what type of team we can be when we are consistent and give that effort that everyone expects out of us and we expect out of ourselves. That’s what we hope for and that’s what we will bring to our fans on Thursday night.”
The win didn’t come without a price for the Devils, who lost second-year centre Jacob Josefson for four to six weeks with a broken left wrist in a second-period collision with Jay Pandolfo. It’s Josfson’s second major injury this season. He broke a clavicle early in the season.
“Everybody in the room really feels for Jake,” Hedberg said. “He’s been through so much these two years with injuries and every time he is getting his groove and things are going well for him, and it looks like he is really to take the next step, some unfortunate injury happens.”
Hedberg, who started for the second time in 12 games, made his best save late in the second period when he stopped a short-handed chance in close by Michael Grabner.
Zajac broke a 1-all tie 22 seconds into the second period with a power-play goal from the hashmark between the circles. Parise, who also assisted on Kovalchuk’s goal, carried the puck in from the point and sent it to Elias along the side boards. Parise took a return pass along the goal line and found Zajac alone for a shot that whizzed past a defenceless Montoya.
“Zach made a good pass and there didn’t seem like there was too much around me,” Zajac said after scoring his first goal since returning to the lineup for the second time this season from an Achilles tendon injury. “He put it right in the wheelhouse and I was able to get a good shot away.”
It was the second goal of the season for Zajac, who has played in 13 games this season because of the Achilles injury he suffered training in the off-season.
The first two goals came in the opening 3:57 on rebounds.
Elias gave New Jersey the lead at 1:18 with his 26th of the season. Montoya stopped a shot from the point by Mark Fayne, but Petr Sykora got the rebound and found Elias alone 10 feet in front of the goalie for a shot into an open net.
Moulson tied it with his career-best 35th goal. John Tavares outfought Fayne for the puck behind the Devils net and sent it to defenceman Mark Streit at the left point. His shot was stopped in front but Moulson, who has scored at least 30 goals in each of his three seasons with the Islanders, backhanded the rebound under Hedberg’s pads.
Tavares earned the 200th assist of his three-season NHL career.
NOTES: Islanders rookie LW Micheal Haley and Devils tough guy Cam Janssen went toe-to-toe for about a minute in a slugfest with 7:34 left in the first period. Haley was recalled from Bridgeport of the AHL on Saturday. … New York D Steve Staios would have played in his 1,000th NHL game had he been in the lineup, but he was scratched. He will probably reach the milestone on Thursday at home against Winnipeg. … Referee Gord Dwyer was a late addition after Stehane Auger was unable to work because he wasn’t feeling well. Kevin Pollock was the other referee. … Islanders D Matt Donovan, recalled from Bridgeport on Monday, made his NHL debut. …New Jersey won the season series, 4-2.