NEWARK, N.J. (AP) While they still don't know who they are going to play in the first round of the NHL playoffs with one game left in the regular season, the New Jersey Devils are going to have a home ice advantage against somebody.
Tomas Tatar had two goals and an assist and the Devils nailed down the home ice edge and ended Buffalo's postseason hopes with a 6-2 victory over the Sabres on Tuesday night.
The Devils trail first-place Carolina by a point in the Metropolitan Division with one game to go. If New Jersey finishes second, it would play the rival Rangers in the opening round. If they win the division, they would face the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, which is still be to determined.
“If you asked me at the start of the year I probably wouldn’t have guessed this,” said Jack Hughes, who scored a late empty-net goal for his 97th point, setting a new franchise single-season record. "I was just hoping that we play a meaningful hockey games down the stretch. For myself, personally, we far and above beat my expectations.”
Jesper Boqvist, Jonas Siegenthaler and Miles Wood also scored as the Devils got big games from their role players in tying their franchise record with their 51st win. Vitek Vanecek made 36 saves in handing Buffalo only its second regulation loss (7-2-1) in 10 games.
The Devils now have 110. They had 63 last season so the turnaround of 47 points ties Colorado (2017-18) and Pittsburgh (2006-07) for the largest differentials in NHL history.
Devils coach Lindy Ruff said the change started with playing better defense and having more focus.
“We found a lot of different ways to win a lot of games, games we were down maybe by one or two (goals),” he said. "You look at just quick turnarounds in games that kept some streets alive, so there was a lot of different ways.”
Jeff Skinner and Mattias Samuelsson scored for the Sabres, whose late run wasn't enough to earn the franchise its first playoff berth since 2011. The 12-year run is the NHL's current longest postseason drought. Emerging 21-year-old star Devon Levi made 24 saves in losing for the second time in six starts.
Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin said the finality of the losing was a gut punch.
“Yeah, honestly, it’s pretty empty,” he said. "I didn’t know I was going to feel like this. But, you know, it is what it is. But the boys have fought hard and now we know what we’re capable of. We played in a couple months or so, but a little too late.”
The game also marked the NHL debut of defenseman Luke Hughes, the younger brother of star center Jack Hughes. He was the No. 4 overall pick in the 2021 NHL draft and signed last weekend after his season at Michigan ended in the Final Four.
New Jersey never trailed leading 1-0 after the first and 3-1 after the second.
Boqvist scored the only goal in the opening period with a shot from the left circle that deflected off the skate of Buffalo defenseman Henri Jokiharju into the net.
Siegenthaler scored on a counter attack early in the middle period on a nice pass from Nico Hischier.
After Skinner got his 34th of the season off a nice assist by Casey Mittelstadt to cut the lead in half, Wood ended a 14-game goal drought by collecting a rebound that bounced around the crease and beating Levi.
Tatar stretched the lead to 4-1 seven minutes into the third period. Samuelsson got his second goal of the season with 6:45 to play. Tatar and Jack Hughes each had empty net goals.
HUGHES: Luke Hughes saw limited action as Ruff dressed seven defensemen, skating 13 shifts with 11:15 ice time. He was minus 1 and did not have a shot on goal.
“Yes it lived up to expectations and a win to top it all off is a big thing, too,” he said. "It was a really cool day and it was great to be out there.
The Devils/Rockies franchise has had two previous sets of brothers play for the team. Patrik and Peter Sundstrom played for New Jersey in 1989-90, while Bob and Paul Miller played for Colorado in 1981-82.
NOTES: Patrik Elias held the old Devils franchise record of 96 points, set in 2000-01. ... Devils C Michael McLeod did not dress for the first time this season. ... New Jersey has four players who have played in every game - Tatar, Dawson Mercer, Dougie Hamilton and Jesper Bratt. ... Mittelstadt has points in four straight games for Buffalo.
Sabres: Return home to face Ottawa on Thursday night.
Devils: Finish the regular season at Washington on Thursday night.
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