NEWARK, NJ With his team in overtime and on the brink of elimination at the hands of the Florida Panthers, Devils coach Pete DeBoer would have taken a goal from anyone on his bench if it meant living to coach another day.
But after New Jersey's 3-2 victory Tuesday to force a Game 7 Thursday in Sunrise, the first-year head man couldn't help but concede that it was particularly emotional to see to see a season-saving shot come off the stick of Travis Zajac.
"He's a great player and he's an even better guy," DeBoer said of his top-line centerman, in a moment that was emotional at least as hockey press conferences go. "It couldn't happen to a better person, and with what he went through, I think we were all happy."
What Zajac went through, for those who don't know, was the kind of injury and subsequent hardship that you'd never wish upon any player. And there was a time not so long ago when it wasn't clear whether the 26-year-old, who underwent surgery to repair a torn left Achilles tendon in August, would even be back on the ice in time for the Devils' playoff run.
"It's really special," DeBoer said after the win. "I firsthand saw what this guy went through for eight months of rehab and the setbacks and in the gym by yourself and on the ice by yourself and left behind while the team's traveling. It's not a lot of fun."
After missing the first four months of the season, Zajac initially returned to the ice Dec. 16 and played in eight games until soreness in the Achilles sidelined him once again. The pain forced Zajac to take a couple giant steps back in his rehab, and his return if he was to even make one this season was suddenly in jeopardy.
"There were a couple times, I think after his setback, I think you wonder and there was conversation whether it was smart to come back or whether it was better to wait until next year for his long term health," DeBoer said. "There was a little bit of that, but he's a motivated guy and once it started to feel better the second time through the rehab that he wasn't going to be denied jumping in and contributing."
Zajac returned for good on March 25, and he's been contributing ever since. He had two goals and four assists over the final seven games of the regular season, and through six games of New Jersey's Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, he's been arguably the Devils' top player, with three goals and three assists.
"When I first came back and for whatever reason wasn't ready, that kind of put a damper on things, but you stick with it," Zajac said. "Because the team, they were playing so well and were going to make the playoffs, that was motivation for me, just getting back for playoffs. This is what we play for, and it makes going through the rehab all year worthwhile."
New Jersey got on the board first Tuesday, as winger Steve Bernier slapped a rolling puck through Florida goalie Scott Clemmensen's five-hole to give the Devils a 1-0 lead with 3:23 left in the first period. The goal was Bernier's second of the series, both coming since a costly incidental contact call disallowed what would have been a game-tying goal in the Devils' Game 3 loss.
The Devils controlled the puck for much of the first period, only allowing six Florida shots over the first 20 minutes, and came back with more of the same early in the second, making it a 2-0 on a power-play one-timer from Zajac to Ilya Kovalchuk just 4:21 into the frame.
But the Panthers weren't going away quietly, and no one should have expected them to in a wild series that has been anything but predictable.
With 12:55 left in the second, Florida right-winger Kris Versteeg scored his third goal of the playoffs on the Panthers' first shot of the period, cutting the Devils' lead in half. Then 5:44 later and on their second shot of the frame the Panthers tied it up on a goal from Sean Bergenheim, his third of the playoffs, as well.
Both teams failed to capitalize on power play opportunities late in the second and throughout in the third including a brief 5-on-3 chance for the Devils to start the final frame and each goalie made a share of spectacular saves to keep the game knotted up.
"We saw we were controlling the lot of the game so we just wanted to be patient and we knew we'd get our chances," Zajac said. "We knew Marty (Brodeur) would shut the door, and even in overtime he made some big saves early on to give us a chance there."
Then with 14:21 left in the extra period, after a scrum in front of Brodeur, Kovalchuk took an outlet pass and returned the favor for the earlier assist, finding Zajac, who scored on a low, hard slapshot past the former Devil Clemmensen's left side to win the game.
"I just wanted to get it away quick and it was lucky to go in," said Zajac, who left the game briefly in the second period with an apparent right ankle injury that couldn't help but make you cringe, despite it being on the opposite leg of his surgically-repaired Achilles.
"The way Clemmer was playing, he was seeing the puck pretty well and we wanted to get some shots on him. In overtime you never know, and that's usually how goals go in, just shots on net."
The overtime win was the 17th of the season for the Devils, who improved to 10-4 at home in games that require extra time to settle. For the Panthers, it was their league-leading 19th overtime loss, one that delayed their first playoff series win since 1996 by at least two more days.
But while the momentum is back on New Jersey's side, Zajac was hardly ecstatic over the overtime winner, and quickly turned his focus to Thursday's deciding game though he struggled at times to conceal the smile on his face.
"It would be big if we go on to the second round," Zajac said of his game-winning shot. "Goals and points at this point don't really mean anything. It's more about winning as a team. Florida's a good team, they're good at home and they're going to bounce back."
And Zajac would know. He's become quite adept about bouncing back himself.
Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner