This isn’t the way Kelly Zajac wanted to gain ice time, but that doesn’t mean he won’t take it.
The former Union College centerman has been working back from a nagging lower-body injury that kept him out of training camp, and will be in the Albany Devils’ lineup for at least the foreseeable future as the team has no healthy scratches.
That’s because defenseman Eric Gelinas was recalled to New Jersey on Wednesday and a pair of Devils’ forwards went down with upper-body injuries — right wing Mike Sislo and Kelly’s older brother, centerman Darcy Zajac.
“As far as I know, he’s doing pretty well,” Kelly said of his brother after Thursday’s practice. “It’s obviously a tough situation to have an injury and go down. I’m not sure what the results were. I didn’t
really ask him too much. I know I just kind of want to let him be, and get in the right mindset.”
According to Albany coach Rick Kowalsky, Darcy is expected to miss “significant time.” Sislo is day-to-day.
Returning from a three-game roadtrip, the Devils (4-1-0-1) will host the Hartford Wolf Pack tonight at 7 at the Times Union Center, and then host the Portland Pirates on Saturday at 5.
Hartford (5-1-0-1) is atop the Northeast Division, but it suffered its first loss in its last game, to Portland (1-3-0-1).
The younger Zajac certainly knowns a thing or two about working back from an injury and finding the “right mindset.”
“It takes a while to get back to normal,” he said. “With the pace of the game and practice that we have going on, I’m trying my best, but it’s something I just can’t control.”
The second-year center has had a rough time of it since his senior year with Union. Still, he finished his career there second all-time in points (128) and first in assists (91).
“It started probably in my last year at college,” he said. “Just from there on, it’s been little things and one big thing that have been bugging me. Guys have been really positive, coach has been positive, and obviously, Chris Lamoriello has been really supportive and giving me a chance to heal up and be ready to play.
“It’s great having that backing. You can just focus on getting healthy and getting strong, getting your body ready to play at the pace we need to play at. It feels good to be back in the lineup and be playing.”
In his first game of the season, Wednesday’s 4-1 win at Utica, Kelly Zajac was skating a line with Cam Janssen and assistant captain Chris McKelvie. In the third period, he set up McKelvie’s goal that gave Albany a 3-0 lead, collecting his first point of the season.
He said he went into the game, though, with an understanding that he couldn’t overextend himself his first time back on the ice.
“Especially with that first game [Wednesday], the opening night in Utica and the excitement for myself, getting back in the game. I just tried to play the game, keep it simple, and not take too long of shifts because practice is practice, and when you get in a game situation, it’s a little bit different,” he said. “I was just keeping it simple and playing my game.”
“It was good to get his first game in,” Kowalsky said. “A ton of ice in the third period, but made the play on the insurance goal, getting the third goal.”
It’s a line with some speed and some physicality, and his brother Darcy may be better built for the latter, but Kelly said he likes working with Janssen and McKelvie.
“Cam’s obviously our enforcer, and he can muck things up in the corner and stir things up, and I think McKelvie’s one of the fastest guys in the league, so all you have to do is just chip it deep and he’ll go get it,” he said. “Obviously, you saw [Wednesday], Cam getting in on the forecheck and McKelvie using his speed to beat the guy off the wall to the net, just throwing the puck to the net.”
It was a good start for Zajac, but he has more work to do if he wants to secure a spot in the lineup when the roster is healthier. Kowalsky said his ice time in the upcoming games will be determined by match-ups, how he’s playing and how his line is playing, but the organization recognizes he has potential.
“[With] Kelly, we’ve just got to be careful,” he said. “It’s not about saying he can only play seven, eight, 10 minutes. I think it’s a game-by-game basis. As a coach, you get a feel for how he’s playing and how their line’s playing. I think he came in and did a good job for his first game. We may get a situation where he’s forced into more minutes, but right now, we want to ease him in. Again, he hasn’t established himself in this league yet. We’ve seen some things we’ve liked. He’s pretty smart defensively, he’s a guy, long-term, we could potentially see on the power play. But he’s got to play both ends of the ice, which I think he has the capability to do.”