UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Winning the second game of a back-to-back set is becoming customary for the New Jersey Devils. But they changed up the routine Saturday night.
Center Travis Zajac scored the game-winning goal in painful fashion with 6:57 remaining in the third period and goaltender Cory Schneider made 30 saves as the Devils edged the New York Islanders 2-1 at the Nassau Coliseum.
Center Frans Nielsen tied the game for the Islanders with 8:29 left in the third while goaltender Evgeni Nabokov made 23 saves.
Center Adam Henrique scored in the first period for the Devils (16-16-8), who have won the second game of back-to-back sets six straight times dating back to Nov. 16.
"You're playing that second night, you're thinking about hockey, I think, as soon as you get (to the rink) in the morning," Zajac said. "And you know you have to have your best effort because it's a back-to-back and you can leave everything out there. We seem to find ways to dig down on those second games and get wins."
New Jersey certainly dug deep Saturday, when Zajac received credit for his seventh goal of the season after a slap shot from defenseman Marek Zidlicky hit Zajac's left shoulder and fluttered past Islanders Nabokov.
Zajac immediately crumpled to the ice in pain and was hunched over as he skated back to the bench, but he was all smiles afterward.
"Couple minutes later, it felt all right," Zajac said.
The Devils also began and ended the game in tenacious fashion. Left winger Ryane Clowe, who returned to action Friday after missing 32 games due to a concussion, engaged in a fierce fight with Islanders defenseman Matt Carkner less than six minutes into the first period.
"You're concerned for him," Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. "Give him a lot of credit, considering what he's gone through. To jump right into something like that -- he wasn't picking on an easy opponent there, either -- says a lot about his character and how bad he wants to contribute."
The Devils preserved the win in the final four minutes by killing off a tripping penalty earned by defenseman Mark Fayne. The Islanders got just one shot off during the power play.
"We had a lot of gutsy performances out there," DeBoer said. "I think everybody is much happier with our battle level tonight than last night (a 2-1 shootout loss to Columbus) and we got rewarded for that."
DeBoer and the Devils know they'll have to fare better on the opening night of back-to-back sets -- in which they are just 3-5-2 -- in order to emerge victorious in a five-way battle for the final playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division.
The Devils' win gave them sole possession of third, pending Philadelphia's game against Edmonton late Saturday. New Jersey, Philadelphia, Columbus and the New York Rangers entered play Saturday tied for third at 38 points.
"I think we needed this, as a group -- big two points," Schneider said. "We couldn't settle for one. I think we needed the two."
The Islanders (11-21-7) needed two points, as well, as they try to get back into the playoff race. New York, which was trying to win two in a row for the first time since Nov. 1-2, is now 11 points behind New Jersey.
The Islanders were playing without captain and leading scorer John Tavares, whose Ironman streak ended at 246 games due to a lower-body injury. Tavares' streak, which dated back to Oct. 16, 2010, was the fifth-longest in team history. Coach Jack Capuano said afterward that Tavares is day-to-day.
Even without Tavares, the Islanders still lost in familiar fashion. New York has dropped eight straight at Nassau Coliseum (0-4-4). The Islanders have been tied or leading in the third period of each of their last six home losses.
"The guys worked hard," Capuano said. "Did some good things. We made some mistakes. We've just got to find a way to get a little bit better."
NOTES: With C John Tavares out due to a lower-body injury, C Frans Nielsen has the Islanders' longest active games-played streak. He played in his 169th straight game Saturday. ... Tavares has played in 329 out of a possible 333 games since making his NHL debut in 2009. He was sidelined for three games in October 2010 due to a concussion. ... In addition to Tavares, the Islanders also scratched LW Eric Boulton and D Aaron Ness. ... The Islanders end the calendar year with games at Minnesota on Sunday and Boston on Tuesday. They will practice Monday at the University of Minnesota, where Ness, RW Kyle Okposo and LW Thomas Vanek all played as collegians. ... While the Islanders lost their captain, the Devils got theirs back as D Bryce Salvador returned to the lineup after missing 30 games with a foot injury. To make room for Salvador, the Devils assigned C Tim Sestito to their AHL affiliate in Albany. ... The Devils scratched C Jacob Josefson, LW Mattias Tedenby and D Anton Volchenkov. Josefson and Tedenby were healthy scratches while Volchenkov was out with what the Devils termed "total body soreness." ... New Jersey is off until it hosts Pittsburgh on Dec. 31.