Zajac Leads Struggling Devils Into Winnipeg

Travis Zajac’s hometown debut will be anything but an ordinary game.

The New Jersey Devils center, a Winnipeg native, missed both of New Jersey’s games at the MTS Centre last season while rehabbing from a torn Achilles tendon. Tonight will be the first time playing in his hometown as he leads the Devils into the second game of a home-and-home series with the Winnipeg Jets.

“There will be a lot of friends and family that are going to come to the game and it’s pretty exciting,” Zajac told Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record. “I’ve never had a chance to play in front of a lot of these people, so it’s going to be a neat experience.”

Zajac is hoping the return can break him out a slump. After opening the season with goals in the first two contests, he has recorded just two goals and two assists in the past 17 games.

“I’m just trying to make sure I’m consistent every night and play the same way and play the right way and, hopefully, things fall into place,” Zajac told Gulitti. “I’m not too concerned about who I play with or anything like that. I just want to make sure I’m taking care of things I know will help this team and be successful.”

It’s not just Zajac that’s slumping. After a hot start that saw New Jersey shoot to the top of the Eastern Conference standings, the Devils have taken a step back. New Jersey is 2-4-1 in its last seven games, and has scored more than two goals just twice.

The special teams has also been an issue, allowing 13 power-play goals in the last nine games. New Jersey is converting on just 59.4% of its penalty-kill situations. They’ve also gone cold on the power play, and are just 2-for-20 over the last five games.

Both of those factors helped sink the Devils in a 4-2 loss to Winnipeg Sunday at the Prudential Center. New Jersey held a 2-1 lead after the first period on goals from Zajac and Steve Bernier. The inability to score that third goal would prove costly. Grant Clitsome tied the game with a power-play tally, and the floodgates opened for the Jets. Winnipeg went on to score twice more, holding the Devils without a goal over the final two periods.

The loss, coupled with a defeat in Washington on Saturday, gave New Jersey consecutive regulation losses for the first time since March 17-19, 2012.

“I thought we were playing well,” Devils head coach Pete DeBoer said after the loss. “We were doing what we wanted to do. Again, we couldn’t get that third goal and it seemed like the handful of chances we gave them they stuck in the back of the net. It’s just the way things are going right now.”

Johan Hedberg stopped 23 shots in the loss, his third straight. The Devils goalie started the season by allowing just two goals on 74 shots, compiling a 2-0-1 record. That performance has slid during his three-game losing skid, with 14 goals allowed on 86 shots.

Winnipeg reversed its early season struggles, returning home after a successful five-game road trip. The Jets went 4-1-0 on the road – a franchise best .800 winning percentage – and sits tied atop the Southeast Division with the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Jets defeated the New York Rangers, 4-3, Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden to close out its road trip. Winnipeg once again scored the first goal, the sixth straight game its scored before the opponent. Olli Jokinen and Evander Kane each recorded two goals – their first multi-goal games of the season – to help Winnipeg win its second straight game. Ondrej Pavelec stopped 30 shots in the win.

If Pavelec starts tonight, he’ll break the franchise record for most games played a goaltender. He currently shares the record with Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen. Both players appeared in 204 games.

Zajac still remembers wearing an old Teemu Selanne Jets jersey and copying his celebration on outdoor rinks around Winnipeg. He’s excited to finally get the chance to play on the biggest stage in his hometown.

“Once they left, you never know, but I thought they were gone for good,” Zajac told Gulitti. “So, it was exciting to see them come back. Obviously, they’ve got fantastic fan support there. They’ve got a great ownership group, which is key for them now, and it sounds like they’re going to be there for the long haul.”

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