With Ryan Miller playing to perfection, the Buffalo Sabres are closing in on a playoff berth.
Looking once again like last year's Vezina Trophy winner, Miller made 30 saves for his fifth shutout of the season — and second in three games — in a 2-0 victory over New Jersey on Saturday that all but dashed the Devils' chances of making the playoffs for a 14th straight season.
The Sabres (38-28-9), by comparison, have opened ground in what's been a tightly contested Eastern Conference race. In winning their third straight and improving to 4-0-1 in their past five, eighth-place Buffalo moved five points up on Carolina and crept within two points of Montreal and the New York Rangers.
With two weeks left in the season, don't ask Miller to start looking too far ahead just yet.
"I'm happy with our progress. We're on the right path," Miller said. "But I'm not going to be happy so to speak until the job's done."
He's done his part in having allowed only eight goals in his past five starts, and coming off a 22-save performance in a 4-2 win over Florida a day earlier. And Miller's getting help from an offence that got off to a dominating start against a Devils team that's suddenly run out of steam.
Nathan Gerbe opened the scoring 4:17 in, and the Sabres held a 14-3 edge in shots when Thomas Vanek scored exactly 12 minutes later.
The Devils were shut out on consecutive nights — and for the third time in five games — following a 1-0 shootout loss at Pittsburgh. They've gone 173:55 without scoring a goal.
"They weren't ready to play," Devils coach Jacques Lemaire said. "Guys are trying. They're getting chances. They're not scoring. You can excuse it to a certain limit. Not being prepared to play, that's different."
The Devils (34-36-5) haven't been able to sustain the second-half surge that allowed them to climb back into the race. After going 23-3-2, New Jersey is 1-4-1 in its past six games and has fallen 12 points back of Buffalo with seven games left.
"The last five or six games has put us into a big uphill battle, again," Patrik Elias said. "Right now, we're obviously having a tough time scoring, and you're not going to win a lot of hockey games that way."
In earning his 22nd career shutout, Miller played a big hand in adding to the Devils' frustrations. He was particularly sharp in stopping 10 shots in the second period.
Miller got his left pad out at the last moment to stop a puck Elias had redirected in front eight minutes in. A minute later, Miller got his right arm up to turn aside Travis Zajac's snap shot from the slot.
A few minutes later, David Clarkson had the puck all alone in front and eventually shot wide as Miller patiently held his ground without providing an opening.
"Right now he's in a good zone and playing well," Gerbe said of Miller. "He knows what's on the line and he knows he's the type of goalie that can steal games. And he's definitely done that for us."
Added Vanek: "When he gets hot, it's tough to get it by him."
Gerbe, with his fifth goal in five games, opened the scoring 4:17 in. Gerbe started the play by chasing down a loose puck behind the Devils net and feeding it in front to Brad Boyes, who got a shot off. Gerbe got the rebound and snapped it past Martin Brodeur.
Vanek scored by converting a rebound in front after Brodeur stopped Jason Pominville's hard low shot from the right circle.
The only negative for Buffalo was news it'll be without offensive defenceman Jordan Leopold, who will miss at least the final two weeks of the season after breaking his left hand against Florida. Leopold, who leads the team's defencemen with 13 goals, will learn more about the extent of the injury — and whether surgery is required — after he meets with a specialist Monday.
"Every team suffers blows. We suffered one," coach Lindy Ruff said. "We need someone to step in and play well. But there's areas of the game where he's definitely going to be missed."