By CHRIS ALTRUDA STATS Editor
New Jersey (31-28-15) at Buffalo (20-45-9), 7:00 p.m. EDT
The Devils were near-perfect in their final eight games to clinch their first playoff berth after moving to New Jersey.
They may need perfection this time around in their final eight to have history repeat itself.
New Jersey seeks consecutive wins against the lightweights of the Eastern Conference to further its postseason push Tuesday night when it visits the Buffalo Sabres.
In their sixth season after relocating from Colorado, the Devils (32-28-15) claimed the final Patrick Division spot in 1987-88 with seven wins and a tie in their final eight contests to overtake Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers and eventually finished one victory shy of the Stanley Cup finals.
While the playoff format has changed, New Jersey again has to leapfrog a pair of teams down the stretch to claim the last wild-card spot in the conference. The Devils, currently 11th in the East and trailing Washington and Toronto, drew within three points of eighth-place Columbus with a 6-3 victory over Florida on Monday as Travis Zajac had his first career hat trick and matched a personal best with four points.
“All we care about is wins at this point,” said Zajac, whose linemates Jaromir Jagr and Ryan Clowe added two goals and five assists. “The wingers were on it. They were getting me the puck.”
Clowe, though, is uncertain for this game after leaving in the second period with an undisclosed injury after taking a hit from Quinton Howden.
Jagr’s season-high four points moved him within striking range of moving up the all-time lists in all three primary offensive categories. He is three goals behind Mike Gartner for sixth, trails Steve Yzerman by three points for sixth and is two assists behind Gordie Howe for eighth.
“I don’t think we spent much energy today, so we should have a lot of energy for (Tuesday) but we’ve got to play better,” Jagr said.
Devils coach Pete DeBoer pulled Martin Brodeur after he allowed three goals on nine shots, and Corey Schneider could get the start after stopping all 13 shots he faced.
Buffalo (20-45-9) has lost four straight and 11 of 12 overall (1-10-1) following its 4-3 overtime loss to Tampa Bay on Saturday. The Sabres took an early 2-0 lead on goals by Matt D’Agostini and Cody Hodgson 1:47 apart, but squandered that lead nearly as quickly and eventually lost on a power-play goal by Steven Stamkos in the extra period.
While the present is bleak for the Sabres, they did commit to their future Monday by signing coach Ted Nolan to a three-year extension and dropping the interim tag. Though Nolan is 16-30-8 since replacing the fired Ron Rolston, general manager Tim Murray is convinced Nolan is who the team needs as it prepares to replenish its system with high draft picks acquired from dealing away veterans over the past two seasons.
“I don’t know if there was one `Eureka moment,”’ said Murray, whose team could potentially have three first-round picks in 2014. “But I certainly got to the point where I knew I wanted him back, and I wanted him to be our head coach. And that wasn’t yesterday or the day before.”
“We have to get him better players,” he added. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.”
The teams have combined for four goals in splitting their previous two games. Steve Bernier’s goal 41 seconds into overtime on Nov. 30 gave New Jersey a 1-0 victory as Schneider made 15 saves for the shutout, and D’Agostini’s power-play tally with 8:11 remaining lifted the Sabres to a 2-1 win Jan. 4.