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Desperation turns into ambition
First-period goals, flawless Miller overwhelm Devils Sabres vs. Devils: Buffalo moves five points ahead of Carolina and inches closer to sixth place in Eastern Conference

It's time for the Buffalo Sabres to start changing their way of thinking. They've spent most of the season trying to dig out from an early hole, with the main objective being to simply climb into the playoff picture.

They got into that coveted eighth position earlier this month. The way they're playing, eighth might be a disappointment.

The streaking Sabres won again Saturday, shutting out the New Jersey Devils, 2-0, in HSBC Arena. Goaltender Ryan Miller celebrated his 22nd career shutout and fifth this season, tying his single-season record.

The Sabres moved to 4-0-1 in the last five games. More importantly, they also moved closer to sixth place in the Eastern Conference and distanced themselves from ninth. Buffalo has 85 points, just two fewer than the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens. The Sabres also have a game in hand on each.

Obviously, the Sabres are feeling pretty good, with good reason.

"It's been said a lot, we're in the driver's seat," defenseman Mike Weber said. "As long as we do what we've been doing lately we'll be fine. We're not too worried about what happened in the past. We're just building on every game from now forward to get to the playoffs.

"More efforts like this and hopefully we can get into that seventh spot or maybe move up into sixth."

The Sabres moved five points ahead of ninth-place Carolina, which lost to Tampa Bay. Each team has seven games remaining.

"If we play the right kind of game, we can play with anybody and we can win hockey games," said Miller, who made 30 stops. "It's a matter of keeping that attention to detail and keeping that work ethic up there. We've been seeing the rewards for playing solid hockey, and by reward I mean we're getting the wins."

The Sabres have been winning by frustrating their opponents.

It's frustrating for a hockey team when it trails. The club with the lead always gets to continue playing its game, while the comeback hopefuls have to switch their strategy. They have to take chances, glance at the clock and try to scratch and claw for anything they can get.

The Sabres have a lot of scratch marks on their back. They're fine with that, of course. It simply means they've been in the lead for a long time.

They haven't trailed with time left on the clock in regulation in any of their last five games. The only time Buffalo was behind against Atlanta, Nashville, Montreal, Florida and New Jersey was when the Predators shocked the Sabres early in overtime for a 4-3 comeback win.

That's 300 minutes, 27 seconds without trailing for the Sabres. The last time they trailed was the 1-0 loss to Carolina on March 15.

"If you can get the first goal there's a little pressure off you," said Sabres forward Nathan Gerbe, who scored the opening goal Saturday. "It's nice because you know the other team has to take risks for their opportunities, and if you can play well you can take advantage of that."

Gerbe extended his hot streak with the sellout crowd still uttering an "ooh" about a scoring chance seconds earlier. Gerbe's pass from behind the net found Brad Boyes at close range, but his shot deflected off a skate.

It went to Gerbe, who ripped a shot into the top corner with 4:17 gone. He has scored in five of seven games, finding the net six times.

"Everyone is playing well," Gerbe said. "It's the time of year when you hope everyone wants to play well. You want to get to the playoffs and be rolling by the time you get there. Everyone knows that and is doing their part."

Both teams played Friday night. The Sabres let if affect them less early. They took 10 of the first 12 shots through 11 minutes. Before the opening period ended, their lead was up to two on Thomas Vanek's goal.

Tim Connolly won a faceoff in the New Jersey end and fed the puck to Jason Pominville. Goalie Martin Brodeur stopped the one-time blast, but he had no chance stopping Thomas Vanek. The left winger stood unguarded next to the netminder and easily deposited the rebound with 3:43 to go.

The second period was essentially a reversal from the first, with New Jersey taking most of the action to a passive Buffalo squad. With Miller in net, it didn't matter.

"We're playing a brand of hockey with a little more awareness now," said Miller, who has a goals-against average of 1.60 in the past five games. "We're doing a good job supporting each other and playing together. It's especially been a lot easier for me to make some reads."

The Sabres play four times in the next week, with three of four on the road.

"We know we've got a real tough week ahead of us," coach Lindy Ruff said. "There's a lot of work ahead of us. We can take a lot of pride in the fact we've been able to fight for three months to get in the picture, but the work's not done yet."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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>Sabres 2, Devils 0

Slap shots: Sabres continue their run, improve to 4-0-1 in last five games to hold playoff spot. ... Miller makes 30 saves to tie career high with his fifth shutout of the season. ... Gerbe, Vanek score in first to slow Devils.

Fast fact: The Sabres haven't trailed with time left on the scoreboard at any point during their five-game run.

Next: Toronto Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. Tuesday in Air Canada Centre.

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