Travis Zajac was always going to be the New York Islanders’ proverbial “next man up” should anything happen within its 12-man forward group in the postseason.
With over 1,000 games of NHL experience — mostly with the New Jersey Devils before he was traded to the Islanders in April — Zajac carried the versatility of playing any of the three forward positions with an ability to excel in the face-off circle.
So when rookie forward Oliver Wahlstrom went down with an injury in Game 5 of the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Zajac stepped in and has continuously rewarded Islanders head coach Barry Trotz’s confidence in re-introducing the 36-year-old back into the lineup.
“I’m definitely not taking it for granted,” Zajac, who made the postseason only once with the Devils after reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012, said. “It’s been a great experience so far and I want to keep it going. It’s a great group of guys, it’s a team that they all enjoy each other’s company… they do things the right way and it’s a fun part to be a part of.”
He isn’t lighting up the scoresheet with just an assist in five games prior to Monday night’s Game 5 against the Boston Bruins, but he’s flanking one of the Islanders’ most valuable lines alongside Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Kyle Palmieri while winning 45.5% of his face-offs.
“Travis, what you’re seeing is those years of experience,” Trotz said of Zajac’s play. “I know when [Lou Lamoriello] talked about acquiring Travis, we talked about what he would bring. He would bring leadership, he would bring detail, he would bring the ability to play multiple positions and he has the competitive spirit that doesn’t translate because he’s more of a quiet guy I think trying to fit in.”
One of the ultimate signs of a player fitting seamlessly into the Islanders’ system is that he isn’t being talked about during the game — rather he’s just doing his job to keep the machine well-oiled. Zajac has fit that bill, bringing an intensity to a third line that has led to more prolific performances from Pageau and Palmieri, who have three and five goals respectively this postseason.
“When the game is only the line, he finds a way to get it done,” Trotz said. “Now the games are mattering most and he’s in the lineup and you see his contributions. What I’m surprised the most about Travis is his ability to win puck battles… there’s a determination, there’s a skill to it. He’s not afraid to get his body involved… he’s got a really good hockey IQ in terms of instincts not only defensively, but offensively as well.”
For Zajac, he’s just enjoying the ride with a new lease on competitive life in the NHL within a roster that utilizes his veteran leadership better than his former home in New Jersey.
“It’s been a great experience. I came from a team where if you weren’t under 25, you didn’t fit in,” Zajac admitted. “But here it’s a little different. It’s a veteran team and they play with structure, they play with commitment, and it’s an easy group to come in… they’re all smart hockey players and they all have experience.”
Stay with AMNY.com for coverage of Game 5 Monday night between the Islanders and Bruins