The Buffalo Sabres are an ice shaving away from the playoffs. That said, it's hardly the champagne-toasting time that should be expected for a team that hasn't played in the postseason in five years.
New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur was four saves better than Martin Biron on Thursday, and he led the Devils past the Sabres, 3-1, in Continental Airlines Arena. The loss dropped the Sabres to 1-6-1 in their past eight games.
The Sabres, who were without suspended co-captain Daniel Briere, still moved one point away from their first playoff spot since 2001. Ninth-place Atlanta also lost Thursday, so the most points it can accumulate is the Sabres' total of 96. A tie by either the Sabres or Thrashers puts Buffalo in the postseason.
The playoffs were all anyone hoped for in training camp, but the slide has diminished the captivating 5 1/2 -month start to the season.
"As a group we're kind of limping in there, so despite being one point away it's still a frustrating night," said Sabres co-captain Chris Drury. "We came here to get two points, and we didn't."
Brodeur gets the credit. He made 29 saves and won his 437th game, tying Jacques Plante for fourth place on the NHL's all-time list. Brodeur improved to 21-12-5 against the Sabres, who haven't won in New Jersey since 2001.
"We really came out strong," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff. "I thought we made enough plays. I thought Brodeur didn't make any mistakes."
The Sabres outplayed the Devils in the first period but still went to the dressing room in a 1-0 hole.
John Madden scored 51 seconds into the game, cashing in a deflection that left Biron helpless.
Paul Martin took a shot from the blue line and Grant Marshall got his stick on it in the slot. The carom went to Madden at the side of the vacated crease.
The Devils made it 2-0 with 10:32 remaining in the game. Scott Gomez's shot from the point was intercepted by Zach Parise, who slipped it through Biron's legs.
It started a flurry of through-the-wickets goals. Tim Connolly cut the Sabres' deficit in half with 5:13 to play on a shot from the blue line. Brodeur somehow whiffed, startling the crowd of 12,425.
"Basically, I was shooting for a deflection," Connolly said. "We got lucky that it went in."
But Brian Gionta scored just 1:05 later, beating Biron through the pads from the slot. Biron, who finished with 25 saves, had been stellar until that point.
"Toni [Lydman] went down to try to block it. I lost it through him," Biron said. "Actually, I thought I was in pretty good position. It just kind of hit the inside of my toe and slid underneath my back leg."
Said Ruff: "It was unfortunate. We would have liked to have had a shot in the last couple of minutes in a 2-1 game. We'd like that one back, but it just seems throughout the stretch we've had a couple of those."
The Sabres have used an opportunistic power play to win most games, but they had the man advantage only twice. New Jersey had three power plays. The penalty killers on both sides wiped them out, though it took a fabulous glove save by Biron on Patrik Elias to kill Derek Roy's second-period penalty.
The Sabres, who played three games in four nights, are taking today off to get ready for a weekend in Toronto. They play rare back-to-back games in the Air Canada Centre, meeting the Maple Leafs on Saturday and Monday.
It's a chance to officially clinch a playoff spot most people penciled in a couple of months ago.
"Everybody kind of thinks that we're in there already," Sabres winger Ales Kotalik said. "But the thing is, we've got to find our game. I think we're pretty close."