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Travis Zajac's value showing now in tough Islanders playoff games

David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins is checked

David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins is checked into the boards by Travis Zajac of the New York Islanders during the first period in Game 4 at the Nassau Coliseum on June 5, 2021. Credit: Getty Images/Bruce Bennett

BOSTON — Anders Lee and Oliver Wahlstrom, the two injured Islanders whose absences directly have led to Travis Zajac’s latest playoff opportunity, were on the ice working during Monday’s optional morning skate. The former is said to be out for the season and the latter is still day-to-day.

Meanwhile, Zajac, the 36-year-old former Devil, is appreciating the moment and his chance to contribute to the Islanders’ postseason run. They face the Bruins on Monday night in Game 5 at TD Garden with their second-round series tied at two games apiece.

"Yeah, you never know," said Zajac, acquired along with Kyle Palmieri on April 7 for a package that included a first-round pick after playing 1,024 regular-season games with the Devils. "I’m definitely not taking it for granted. It’s been a great experience so far and we want to keep it going."

Zajac has settled into a role on Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s right wing along with Palmieri — Wahlstrom’s spot in the lineup — as well as a penalty killer and another option for coach Barry Trotz on key faceoffs.

But Zajac didn’t dress in the playoffs until the deciding Game 6 of the first-round series against the Penguins. Wahlstrom suffered a lower-body injury in the third period of Game 5 in Pittsburgh.

And the Islanders don’t make the trade for Palmieri and Zajac if Lee didn’t suffer a torn right anterior cruciate ligament on March 11, ironically against the Devils.

Playing in the playoffs used to be a normal routine for Zajac, who broke into the NHL with the Devils in 2006. The Devils qualified for the playoffs in five of Zajac’s first six seasons, including a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012 before a six-game loss to the Kings.

But the Devils made the playoffs just once — in 2018 — in Zajac’s final eight full seasons with the team.

This season, the youthful Devils finished seventh in the eight-team East Division, 26 points behind the Islanders for the division’s final playoff spot.

"It’s been a great experience," Zajac said of his time with the Islanders. "I came from a team where if you weren’t under 25, you didn’t fit in. But here it’s a little different. It’s a veteran team and they play with structure, they play with commitments. It’s an easy group to come in and insert yourself because they’re all smart hockey players. They’ve been around and have experience."

Still, it wasn’t a seamless transition for Zajac after spending his entire career with one organization.

Trotz tried Zajac everywhere from Mathew Barzal’s top line to Casey Cizikas’ identity line and in all three forward spots without finding a natural fit. Zajac wound up with a goal and an assist in 13 regular-season games with the Islanders — he entered Monday with one assist in five playoff games — and became a consistent healthy scratch for the first time in his career.

But now Zajac’s value as a depth forward is becoming realized.

"With Travis, what you’re seeing is those years of experience," Trotz said. "We talked about what he would bring: He would bring leadership, he would bring detail, he would bring ability to play multiple positions and he has a competitive spirit which maybe doesn’t translate because he’s a little more of a quiet guy.

"Now the games are mattering most and he’s in the lineup and you see his contributions," Trotz added. "What I’m surprised about as much as anything is Travis’ ability to win puck battles. To win that loose puck. There’s a determination. There’s a skill to it. He’s not afraid to get his body involved to leverage a puck."

Lee on ice for morning skate. Anders Lee, the injured and out-for-the-season Islanders captain, was on the ice for the optional morning skate on Monday at TD Garden, less than three months after tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament and requiring surgery. The stated timetable for Lee’s return, per both president and general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz, has always been next season’s training camp in September. Trotz repeated during the Islanders’ six-game win over the Penguins in the first round that Lee was not a possibility during this postseason. Still, Lee has been a daily presence around his teammates as he rehabs from the most serious injury of his career.

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