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NEWARK, N.J. -- Zach Parise is the heartbeat of the New Jersey Devils.
Martin Brodeur is the backbone. Ilya Kovalchuk is the game-breaker.
On Tuesday night, though, it was underrated top-line centerman Travis Zajac who emerged as the star on a team laden with them.
With the Devils' season hanging in the balance, Zajac scored 5:39 into overtime as New Jersey stayed alive, beating the Florida Panthers 3-2 in front of a sellout crowd at Prudential Center to force a decisive Game 7.
|Zajac launched into a celebration after scoring the OT winner.|
"I thought he was outstanding," Devils coach Peter DeBoer said of Zajac. "He might have been our best player on the ice."
The series will be decided on Thursday night in Sunrise, Fla.
Kovalchuk, who finished with a power-play goal and an assist, set up Zajac for the winner. Parise chipped the puck to Kovalchuk in the neutral zone. The Russian sniper skated in past the blue line and immediately drew two defenders, so he snapped a pass to Zajac, who was zipping down the left wing.
"Not many guys in the league can come across the blue line like that and draw two people to you and snap that pass in there," DeBoer said of Kovalchuk. "It was a great play by a great player."
Zajac accepted the pass on his tape and quickly whipped a wrist shot from the bottom of the left circle, beating Scott Clemmensen (39 saves) through the five-hole.
Zajac immediately began high-stepping on the ice before being mobbed by his teammates along the boards.
"It was pretty cool. You always think about scoring an OT playoff goal," said Zajac, who now has two for his career. "Everyone wants to.
"It's a fun time to play hockey and to compete at this level. But we want to win. That's what we want to do. And to be able to contribute in any way you can, it's fun."
Prior to Tuesday night, Zajac's 2011-12 season had been anything but fun. He was limited to just 15 games because of an Achilles injury he suffered in an offseason workout. Zajac returned to the Devils in mid-December but was forced to shut it down again after just eight games due to soreness.
He even had to miss some of Tuesday night's game after getting tangled up with Marcel Goc following a second-period face-off and suffering a stinger. But after a quick trip to the dressing room, Zajac was back on the ice.
"It sucked sitting out most of the year," said Zajac, who appeared in the final seven games of the regular season. "It's tedious stuff you have to do every day. And that gets annoying. But you look at the bigger picture. Eventually, you get back on the ice and it keeps you going."
DeBoer praised Zajac's perseverance in spite of all the adversity he faced.
"I saw firsthand what this guy went through for eight months of rehab," DeBoer said. "The setbacks. Being in the gym by yourself. Being on the ice by yourself. Getting left behind while the team is traveling. It's not a lot of fun.
"It couldn't happen to a better guy," DeBoer said of Zajac's winning goal, "with all the work he did to get back to us."
Added Parise: "He's had a hard year, a long year, a frustrating year, so it's got to be rewarding and satisfying for him to get that one."
The Devils got off to a flying start in Game 6, jumping out to a 2-0 lead early in the second period on goals by fourth-liner Steve Bernier and Kovalchuk, who went back door and finished off a perfect pass from Zajac on a set play at the left post. But just like in Game 3, it wouldn't last. Kris Versteeg and Sean Bergenheim countered minutes later in the middle frame, tying the game at 2. That's where it stood until overtime, when Zajac emerged as the hero.
"He's our best centerman," Kovalchuk said. "It didn't surprise me.
"When you lose your top guy, that always hurts. But when he came back, he gave us a lot of energy, and allowed the coaching staff to put different guys on different line combinations."
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Devils are now 5-3 in Game 6s when trailing 3-2 in a best-of-seven series; they're 2-2 in ensuing Game 7s. So now it's down to one game. The winner moves on, while the loser goes home.
"All you have to do is look around the league to really appreciate how tough the playoffs are," DeBoer said. "Look at the quality of some of the teams that are sitting on the sidelines right now.
"We had one of the best road records in the league. I know we're gonna be in for a good one."
"We just have to be desperate like we were [Tuesday night]," Kovalchuk added.
The Devils outshot the Panthers 42-16 and took just one penalty. They'd love nothing more than to replicate that performance in Game 7.
Parise finished with an assist and a game-saving backcheck on Stephen Weiss which thwarted a 2-on-1 opportunity for Florida in overtime. Brodeur made 14 saves, including his best one on Mikael Samuelsson with 2:31 in regulation, which kept New Jersey alive. Kovalchuk did his part, too. And Zajac did his.
DeBoer said after the game that in the playoffs you need your best players to play like your best players.
Parise, Brodeur and Kovalchuk did. But it was Zajac who emerged as the star and allowed the Devils to survive. On Thursday night, they'll even have a chance to advance.
Mike Mazzeo is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.