NEWARK, N.J. – This trip was meaningful for Jacob Josefson, and the Buffalo Sabres knew it. So as they wrapped up practice in his old arena, they sent him to center ice to lead the stretch and give a pep talk.
"I just told the guys we had to win," Josefson said.
Friday's game against the New Jersey Devils was Josefson's first trip to Prudential Center as a visitor. Drafted in the first round by the Devils in 2009, the center spent seven seasons with the team.
"I was here for a long time, so of course it's a lot of memories," Josefson said. "I had a really good time playing here and had a lot of friends."
Josefson's top memory of his time in New Jersey was his second season. The Devils advanced to the 2012 Stanley Cup final, losing in six games to the Los Angeles Kings.
"That was a great year," Josefson said. "It was a really fun run to be part of. We had a great team that year, a lot of good guys. I think back to that time a lot, and it's something that I will carry with me through my whole life.
"We had a lot of veterans on the team, a lot of guys who'd been winning like Marty Brodeur and Patrik Elias and other veterans. It was good coming in as a young guy being around people like that. You learned a lot, and they were great leaders."
The 26-year-old is one of the veterans in Buffalo, and he quietly leads by example.
"He's a great professional," said linemate Jordan Nolan. "He's always doing the right thing. He's always working hard. His emotions never get too high or too low. He's been around for a while now, so I think it's good for some of the guys just to see that."
Unfortunately, they haven't seen enough of it. An ankle injury limited Josefson to just 13 of the opening 37 games. He entered the game against the Devils with one goal and one assist while skating 11:28 per night.
"I really like it here in Buffalo," Josefson said. "There's a great group of guys, and I think we're on our way to the right path here. It feels like we have something exciting going on here in Buffalo.
"We just have to start winning some games here, and it will be even more fun."
Zemgus Girgensons entered the night with a two-game scoring streak since joining center Jack Eichel and right wing Sam Reinhart. The left winger has caught coach Phil Housley's eye in other areas, too.
"He's upped the ante in the work department," Housley said. "He's certainly come to play, is prepared and is finishing checks and is physical. He does a lot of dirty work for that line, especially on the forecheck and getting to the net. He's getting rewarded because of it.
"He's got to continue to do that. It's a good sign for him."
Girgensons earned the nickname of "Latvian Locomotive" early in his career. He ranks fourth on the Sabres with 70 hits, trailing Jake McCabe (81), Rasmus Ristolainen (79) and Evander Kane (75).
"Being physical is a big part of the game," Girgensons said. "When you finish checks, it's harder for their players to jump back in the rush. You're kind of taking them out of the play, so it's very important."
Sitting atop the Metropolitan Division, the Devils are poised to end a five-year playoff drought. They made it in 21 of the previous 24 seasons.
“It’s a feeling,” center Travis Zajac, who debuted in 2006, told NorthJersey.com. “It was a winning culture. You come in and you knew you were making the playoffs. Nobody even talked about it because it was just embedded in the culture. You knew it in games. You knew it throughout the season.
"You didn’t have that panic or that nervousness set in at all because you trusted the players. You trusted the system. You just knew the culture would override any negative things that happened during the season.”
Zajac said that feeling is returning.
“We’re starting to get that back,” he said. “You can feel it in games. You can feel it coming to the rink, where guys are coming to compete and work and the trust is there.
“It’s that winning culture we’re still trying to build, but it’s definitely starting to creep back in."