The New Jersey Devils are still alive in the Stanley Cup chase because of a player who spent most of the season off the ice working his way back from an Achilles tendon injury.
Travis Zajac scored at 5:39 of overtime and the Devils avoided elimination and sent yet another Eastern Conference first-round series to a seventh game with a 3-2 victory over the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night.
"It's fun to be back competing and playing at this time of year," said Zajac, whose season was limited to 15 regular-season games because of an Achilles injury in August that required surgery.
"When you have a setback, you never know what's going to happen. As I went through the process again, I felt better and better. It was just about being patient. I knew I would be back at some time in the new year. I was able to get a few games in and prepare for the playoffs."
The Devils will be playing in a Game Seven in Florida on Thursday because Zajac scored his biggest goal of the season on a counterattack against Panthers goalie Scott Clemmensen.
Zajac cleared the puck from in front of a harried Martin Brodeur and started a rush up the ice. Zach Parise took his cross-ice pass and gave the puck to Ilya Kovalchuk, who found Zajac skating down the left wing for a shot along the ice into the net.
"Kovy gets the puck at the far blue line and draws a couple of guys to him," Zajac said. "He made a really nice play to me and I just wanted to get a quick shot on net. I was lucky to beat Clemmer there."
It sparked a wild celebration in the corner and sent both teams packing for a trip to Florida.
"It's been a frustrating year for him," Parise said of Zajac, who had played in 401 straight games before his injury. "It's got to be rewarding and satisfying for him to get that one. He's played really well for us in the series. He's a good guy to play with. He makes my job easier. He makes Kovy's job easier."
Clemmensen was outstanding, making 39 saves in an emergency start for the injured Jose Theodore.
Steve Bernier and Kovalchuk also scored and Brodeur made 14 saves for New Jersey, which squandered a two-goal lead before forcing a deciding game.
"They are fun to be part of," Brodeur said of playing in Game Sevens. "When you're a kid you always go out and say 'this is Game Seven for all the marbles.' It brings back good memories because of that. You don't need to be nervous. You need to embrace the situation and make the best out of it."
Kris Versteeg and Sean Bergenheim tallied for Florida, which was looking for its first series win since 1996.