Travis Zajac had a look of a man who could not believe his good fortune.
“It’s pretty wild. Obviously a dream come true. Growing up you want to play in the Stanley Cup final [and now the Devils] have that chance. Sometimes you got to pinch yourself,” Zajac said Tuesday during his media availability during the media session at the Prudential Center
That is especially so when your dream started out as a nightmare. Zajac missed most of the year after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon during off-season workouts. He returned for eight games between Dec. 16 and Jan. 2 before being shut down for all but the final seven games of the regular due to soreness.
“It’s been a long year,” Zajac said. “I kind of knew something was wrong. It [was] disappointing having the surgery, missing training camp and the first part of the season. Obviously coming back didn’t work out; kind of had a little bit of a setback. That was a roller-coaster ride.”
Zajac and the Devils convened with his doctors during his second recuperative period and formulated a plan centered around the top-line center returning for the playoffs.
“Just see where it goes, not push anything and make sure we get it right this time,” Zajac said. “We kind of [shot] for coming back before the [end of the regular season] and get myself into shape.”
Players claim that they can glean information while watching games from home or from the press box. Zajac studied the game during his convalescence.
“The game looks a lot easier from up there. That’s for sure,” Zajac joked. “You watch [and] you see things. But as soon as you get on the ice, that all changes. There’s a lot less time when you get back in the games.”
Zajac made his re-debut in the 5-2 loss to the Penguins on March 25. That game was the last loss of the regular season as the Devils finished 6-1 in their final seven games.
“Once Travis got back [it] really gave our team a lot of depth,” Devils captain Zach Parise said. “Once he got comfortable playing again, we strung together I think six or seven in a row at the end of the season.
Added Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello: “Travis Zajac, we can’t sidestep what his value is [with] him being in the lineup.”
The Panthers, Flyers and Rangers may agree with the assessments offered by Parise and Lamoriello. Zajac is third on the team in scoring with 12 points (seven goals and five assists) in the Devils’ 18 playoff games. He has scored two game-winning goals, including the overtime winner in the Devils’ 3-2 win in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the No. 3-seed Panthers.
Those teams are home watching Zajac and the Devils in the final. Lucky guy.
Follow NHL beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman for all your news on the Stanley Cup finals.