BUFFALO, N.Y. – With each win, there is a growing sense in Buffalo that the Sabres just might be capable of mounting a late-season playoff push.
It is a much different mood for Martin Brodeur and the slumping New Jersey Devils. Their worry grew deeper Sunday night after their skid reached seven games with a 3-2 shootout loss to the Sabres.
“It’s really concerning that we can’t just win. That’s the bottom line,” the Devils goalie said. “We played one of the teams that we should beat, and I thought we deserved to beat them the way we played.”
The Devils lost to Buffalo despite outshooting the Sabres 37-22 and outplaying them for numerous long stretches.
New Jersey (15-14-10) dropped to 0-3-4 in its past seven. It is the Devils’ longest winless streak since going 0-4-2-1 from Nov. 10-23, 2001. This skid has coincided with the absence of top forward Ilya Kovalchuk, who missed his seventh game because of a shoulder injury.
New Jersey earned one point Sunday to move into ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings, but the loss clinched a playoff spot for the conference-leading Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Sabres (16-17-6), meanwhile, are showing signs of resilience.
With 38 points they have jumped into 11th place after winning their third in a row during a week in which the team began rebuilding by trading away three veterans, including captain Jason Pominville.
Nathan Gerbe scored the lone shootout goal, and Buffalo’s Ryan Miller stopped 37 shots through overtime, and three more in the shootout—including a victory-clinching glove save on Travis Zajac.
“We survived and got two points. Not pretty, but it’s two,” Miller said. “When you win hockey games, there’s a certain belief. And we’re just trying to do it one game at a time.”
Steve Ott extended his goal streak to three games, and Patrick Kaleta also scored for Buffalo.
Kaleta opened the scoring with his first goal in 53 games, and first point in 40, dating to March 7, 2012.
“We’re a resilient group,” said Kaleta, who also provided several big hits, including one that levelled Zajac in the final seconds of the second period. “We’re taking it game by game right now. It’s a whole new season.”
Gerbe scored on the Sabres’ second shootout attempt by snapping a shot that beat Brodeur low on the glove side. Miller made his best stop on the Devils’ next attempt when he kicked out his right pad at the last moment to stop Patrik Elias.
Miller opened the shootout by stopping Steve Sullivan’s back-hander.
Sullivan and Mark Fayne, who forced overtime with a short-handed goal 5:46 into the third period, scored for the offensively challenged Devils. They have combined for just six goals in five games, and have produced three or more just twice in their past 12.
“I can see how it can be frustrating when you’re getting that many scoring chances and not being able to grab a lead and play with some comfort,” said Sullivan, who was reacquired by the Devils last week in a trade with Phoenix. “It’s got to turn soon. We’re running out of time here, so we’ve got to start burying pucks.”
Help might be on the way. Before the game, Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello said “it won’t be long” before Kovalchuk resumes skating.
The Sabres overcame their own issues on Sunday, and a booing home crowd.
Buffalo was having such a tough time controlling the puck in the second period that fans began cheering whenever the Sabres got the puck past their blue line.
Held to four shots in the first period, the Sabres were outshot 18-8 through 32 minutes. The momentum shifted after Buffalo’s John Scott levelled David Clarkson with a hit at the right circle.
Buffalo managed six shots over the next two minutes, including Ott’s goal that put Buffalo ahead 2-1.
Fayne tied it with the Devils’ NHL-leading 10th short-handed goal. He was set up in the high slot by Dainius Zubrus, who was allowed to roam free in the Sabres end.
“Frustrating, you know,” Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. “We generated chances and shots and opportunities, but we just aren’t finishing like we need to.”
NOTES: The Sabres have allowed a league-high seven short-handed goals. … Sabres RW Thomas Vanek missed his sixth straight game with an upper body injury. … Fayne’s goal was the ninth of his career and first in 49 games. … Of Kaleta’s 27 career goals, four have come against New Jersey, his most against any team.