When Lindy Ruff returns to the city he long called home Friday night, his New Jersey Devils will be looking to steady themselves for the trip to the playoffs the Buffalo Sabres still haven't made since dismissing him as head coach over a decade ago.
The Devils will look to snap a late-season slump when they visit the reeling Sabres in the second of three regular-season games between the clubs.
Both teams have been off since absorbing frustrating defeats Tuesday. Matt Boldy scored on the breakaway with 1.3 seconds left in overtime to lift the visiting Minnesota Wild past the Devils, 2-1. The host Sabres endured another multi-goal defeat when the Nashville Predators rolled to a 7-3 victory.
The last-second loss cost the Devils (45-18-8, 98 points) a chance at the extra winner's point in the shootout and an opportunity to remain a point behind the Carolina Hurricanes -- who reached 100 points with a 3-2 win over the New York Rangers -- in the Metropolitan Division race. The Hurricanes were slated to complete a home-and-home set with the Rangers on Thursday night.
"It's frustrating, but what are you going to do?" said Devils goalie Vitek Vanecek, who made 27 saves. "I didn't look at the clock. I was just focused on the breakaway."
The loss was the fourth in the last five games (1-2-2) for the Devils, but the nail-biter provided another reminder of what playoff hockey will be like. New Jersey, which entered Thursday 19 points clear of the ninth-place Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference, is all but assured of reaching the postseason for the first time since the spring of 2018.
"That's how it's going to be this time of year (between) two teams that are going to the playoffs," Devils left winger Jesper Bratt said after the Wild climbed into a tie for first place in the Central Division with the Dallas Stars. "Not a lot of scoring chances and tight defense all game."
The Sabres (33-31-6, 72 points) appeared as if they might have a chance to break the NHL's longest playoff drought when they acquired defenseman Riley Stillman and left winger Jordan Greenway while in the thick of the wild-card race as the trade deadline arrived on March 3.
But the Sabres have lost eight of 10 (2-6-2) since March 4 to go from four points back in the race for the second wild card to eight points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins entering Thursday. Four of their last six losses have been by at least three goals and two have been by at least six goals.
"I think it's the first time in a while this team's been close to the playoffs," Sabres center Tage Thompson said. "We wanted to be the group that can push and get there, so that comes (with) added pressure. But we've got to learn how to play with that."
The Sabres haven't made the playoffs since Ruff was behind their bench in the spring of 2011. Buffalo has employed six coaches since Ruff -- who coached a franchise-record 1,165 regular season games and 101 playoff contests while directing the Sabres to one Stanley Cup Finals appearance and three trips to the Eastern Conference finals -- was dismissed 17 games into the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign.
--Field Level Media