NHL fans might have overlooked the New Jersey Devils' chances in the playoffs despite their 102 point regular season and the wonderful play of their two veteran goalies, Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg. I confess I have.
What I failed to recognize was what impact the return of spark-plug Travis Zajac to the lineup would have. The center missed most of the regular season recovering from an Achilles injury. Rehabbing and missing 67 games must have been especially frustrating, considering before this injury, Zajac had played 401 consecutive games, nearly five seasons, without missing one.
Zajac did not miss a beat in the first round. In Game 4, he provided an assist and a goal. In Game 6, he assisted on the critical second goal and then scored the game winner in overtime.
He averaged 21:49 ice time per game and won 76 of 129 face-offs, a 58.9 percent, which is especially critical because Patrick Elias, the team's top center, struggles with face-offs. After averaging 0.7 hits per game in the 15 regular season games he played, Zajac quadrupled that in the playoffs, landing 19 hits. His five takeaways to two giveaways were also significant for a team that is often careless with the puck.
Zajac's contributions were matched by 35-year-old defenseman Bryce Salvador, a veteran of 692 NHL career games. Salvador is enjoying the best season of his career, posting a plus-18 and averaging 20:13 ice time per game, the most ever for him.
New Jersey also received wonderful play from defenseman Marek Zidlicky, wingers David Clarkson and Stephen Gionta, and of course rookie center Adam Henrique, who scored two pivotal goals in Game 7, including the series-winner.
I do not remember a first round ever being marked so much by the achievements of unsung heroes. In fact, while some of the NHL's marquee goalies remain in the hunt for this year's Stanley Cup, not many of the MVP candidates, besides Philadelphia's Claude Giroux, will be playing in the second round.
So who will be the stars of the second round? Can these over-achievers sustain that level of performance for another series? I still like my picks of Washington's Nicklas Backstrom and St Louis' T.J. Oshie to be difference-makers in round two.