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Devils 3, Sabres 1 @NHLdotcom

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) - Another quality opponent produced another quality performance from the New Jersey Devils.

Brian Gionta scored his team-leading 41st goal, Martin Brodeur tied Jacques Plante on the NHL's career victories list and New Jersey beat Buffalo 3-1 on Thursday night to move a step closer to securing an Eastern Conference playoff berth.

New Jersey remained tied with Tampa Bay and Montreal - all winners Thursday night - for sixth place with 83 points. All three moved seven points ahead of ninth-place Atlanta, which lost to Tampa Bay.

The Devils continued their pattern of saving their 'A' game for the NHL's better teams. Since the beginning of February they have beaten all five teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference: Philadelphia, Ottawa (twice, including Tuesday night), Carolina, the New York Rangers and now Buffalo.

"We've just been doing the things we have to do individually and collectively in the system we play," coach Lou Lamoriello said. "People are playing their roles."

The Devils' frequent downfall, though has been an inability to put away the lesser teams. The Devils have lost to Toronto, Pittsburgh, Boston and the New York Islanders in the last three weeks.

"The way we've been playing, we've been playing well against quality teams," said Zach Parise, who gave the Devils a 2-0 lead with a third-period goal. "From here on out, we've got to do that every night."

Parise is a recent addition to the first line with Gionta and Scott Gomez, and has been enjoying the lofty view. Against the Sabres, he scored a goal a split-second after the second-period buzzer that was disallowed, then made amends early in the third period when he took a feed from Gomez and stuffed the puck under Biron.

"It's fun," Parise said. "I'm enjoying every minute of playing with them. I know I have to be at the top of my game every night - I don't want to be the weak link."

Brodeur stopped 29 shots to tie Plante for fourth place on the NHL's career victory list with 437. Brodeur withstood heavy pressure from the Sabres in the first period and only lost his chance for his sixth shutout of the season in the final 5 minutes of the game when Tim Connolly beat him with a low wrist shot through traffic.

The Devils jumped out to a lead in the game's first minute when John Madden pounced on a rebound of a shot from the right point by Paul Martin and flipped it over Biron. New Jersey maintained the one-goal lead after the first period despite being outshot 16-8 by the Sabres.

Buffalo, which played without captain Daniel Briere due to a two-game suspension and was playing its second game in two nights, lost its seventh game in its last eight.

"We played a very good road game for two periods," said goaltender Martin Biron, who finished with 25 saves. "We were all over them. Marty made some big saves that kept them in the game. If we play like that on the road, defensively and crashing the net, we'll be OK."

Connolly scored with a little more than 5 minutes left to cut the Devils lead to 2-1, but Gionta scored 1:05 later to give the Devils a two-goal cushion.

Coming on the heels of Tuesday's 3-2 shootout win at Ottawa, Thursday's win put the Devils in the right frame of mind for another big game at Philadelphia on Saturday.

"In the last few games we've done a good job of playing with intensity, and playing desperate," Gionta said. "That's what we need to do for the next nine games. When we sit back and let other teams take it to us, that's when we get in trouble."

Notes: Briere was suspended for two games Thursday by the NHL for hitting Boston's Brian Leetch with a high stick Wednesday night. Briere also will miss a game at Toronto on Saturday ... Sabres D Teppo Numminen sat with a sprained knee. He was injured Wednesday ... Buffalo had scored four goals in each of its last three games before Thursday.

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