DEVILS (31-20-4) at SABRES (24-25-6)
TV: MSG PLUS, MSG-B
Last 10: New Jersey 5-3-2; Buffalo 5-4-1
Season Series: Fourth and final meeting. After the Devils won the first two games -- including the prior matchup at First Niagara Center -- the Sabres scored a 2-1 victory via the shootout on Jan. 24 at Prudential Center. Jason Pominville scored in the third round to prolong the penalty-shot tiebreaker, and Nathan Gerbe beat Martin Brodeur in the fourth round to end it.
Big Story: New Jersey enters what could be a more challenging stretch than it initially appears -- each of the Devils' next three games are against teams currently outside the top eight in their respective conferences (Sabres, Ducks, Canadiens), but with approximately a third of the season still remaining they all figure to be playing desperate hockey, trying to make enough of a push prior to the Feb. 27 trade deadline to prove they should be buyers and not sellers. The Sabres broke out of a prolonged skid the last time they faced the Devils and went on a 5-0-1 run that ended Saturday against the Lightning.
Devils: The shootout loss to Buffalo also started New Jersey on a stretch in which it picked up at least one point in seven straight games (5-0-2), but the Devils came away empty Saturday with a 3-1 loss to the visiting Panthers. While the afternoon started off promising with Steve Bernier's goal just 1:39 in, the Devils couldn't build on the lead and were stymied for most of the final two periods by the Panthers' defense and former Brodeur backup Scott Clemmensen, who improved to 4-0-0 against his old team.
"We just kind of slowed down a bit. We couldn't keep that pace up for whatever reason," captain Zach Parise said in the Newark Star-Ledger. "I don't think it was so much what they were doing as we started throwing the puck away, turning the puck over a lot and we stopped talking to each other on the ice.
"It's frustrating because we've been playing so well as of late. I'm not saying it was a step backward, but it wasn't a great effort by us."
Sabres: While its recent hot streak allowed Buffalo to gain some ground in the standings, teams like Montreal and Tampa Bay have been just as hot, and the Lightning nosed back ahead of the Sabres by virtue of a tiebreaker after their 2-1 win. Tampa Bay held a 23-13 advantage in shots over the first 40 minutes and went ahead to stay on second-period goals by Steve Downie and Steven Stamkos. Buffalo carried play in the third, as the Sabres outshot the Lightning 14-5 and got back in the game on Pominville's goal at the 7:07 mark, but they never found the equalizer.
"It took us awhile to get to a point where we could do what we needed to do to win a hockey game, and it was already coming from behind," goalie Ryan Miller said in the Buffalo News.
Who's Hot: Alexei Ponikarovsky has 2 goals and 6 assists in nine games since the Devils acquired him in a trade with the Hurricanes. … Pominville has 3 goals and 2 assists during a four-game points streak for the Sabres.
Injury Report: New Jersey defenseman Adam Larsson has missed the last five games with a bruised lower back. Defenseman Henrik Tallinder (blood clot) and forwards Travis Zajac (Achilles) and Ryan Carter (broken finger) are on injured reserve. … Buffalo forward Cody McCormick (upper body) is day-to-day. Forward Jochen Hecht (concussion) is on injured reserve.
Stat Pack: Petr Sykora played his 500th game for the Devils on Saturday and is now just 10 shy of 1,000 for his NHL career. … Sabres defenseman Mike Weber assisted on their lone goal Saturday while also blocking three shots, delivering two hits and coming up with two takeaways in 16:49 of ice time.
Puck Drop: New Jersey had two days off prior to playing Buffalo and gets another two days before Anaheim visits on Friday. The loss to Florida marked the end of a stretch of seven games in 12 days that coach Peter DeBoer said could have led to lethargic play Saturday, but the players weren't willing to hide behind that.
"That's the easiest excuse," Ilya Kovalchuk said in the Star-Ledger. "Everybody has the same schedule. We just have to find a way to win, especially in our home building. Now we've lost two in a row. We can't do that."