The Buffalo Sabres have already earned a playoff berth, but are still looking for their first division title in 10 years.
The Eastern Conference-leading Sabres look to take another step toward clinching the Northeast Division crown when they host the New York Islanders on Friday.
Buffalo (49-20-7) hasn’t finished at the top of its division since the 1996-97 season and hasn’t been a No. 1 seed in the playoffs since 1979-80. The Sabres, though, are in a good position to do both after beating New Jersey 4-3 on Wednesday.
The win helped Buffalo put some distance between itself and the Devils, who entered with the second-best record in the conference.
“Now they have to go a long way to catch us,” forward Ales Kotalik said. “It’s always a little confidence-booster for upcoming games.”
The Sabres scored three third-period goals against a New Jersey club that has allowed the fewest goals in the East. Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller, however, was more impressed by the Sabres’ success at playing patient, defensive-minded hockey, something that could bode well for the stretch drive and the postseason.
“We got the rewards for playing the right way,” said Miller, who stopped 28 shots. “The Devils play a very patient system that benefits them come playoff time. And we feel if we can play against that, we can play against a lot of teams in this league.”
Of course, it also helps to have two key offensive players return to the lineup. Kotalik scored a goal Wednesday in his first game back since missing 16 with a right knee injury, and forward Daniel Paille also scored in his first appearance since sitting out 15 contests because of a broken finger.
“Danny’s a terrific competitor and a great skater,” coach Lindy Ruff told the team’s official Web site. “Some real good offensive opportunities that he had, we needed him to convert on. That’s a great step in the right direction tonight.”
Veteran defenseman Toni Lydman practiced for a second straight day Thursday and is expected to play Friday after missing six games with an upper body injury.
While the Sabres are getting players back from injuries just in time for the playoffs, the Islanders are losing key players at the wrong time.
With just six games left in their regular season, the Islanders (36-28-12) are among a handful of teams battling for the last three playoff spots in the East. The absence of goalie Rick DiPietro on Tuesday didn’t help as New York fell 3-2 to New Jersey, the team’s second straight loss and sixth in eight games.
DiPietro, who missed most of three games with a head injury earlier this month, sat out because of headaches he had been experiencing since the Islanders’ overtime loss to the New York Rangers on Sunday.
“After the game on Sunday, Rick told our medical staff that he was suffering from headaches,” Islanders general manager Garth Snow said in a statement. “Until Rick is completely recovered, he will not play. As important as these games are, nothing is more important than Rick’s health.”
Late Thursday, the Isles said DiPietro will not accompany the team to Buffalo and is not expected to play Saturday at home against Ottawa.
Mike Dunham filled in for DiPietro on Tuesday and stopped 29 shots in the loss, his fourth straight. The Islanders are just 1-9-1 in the last 11 games Dunham has played.
New York snapped a six-game losing streak against Buffalo with a 5-3 win on Jan. 27.