Devils' Brian Gionta, left, scores after Vancouver goalie Curtis Sanford, right, got caught behind the net. ((Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press))

For Vancouver Canucks fans, goaltender Roberto Luongo can't return to the lineup soon enough.

The visiting New Jersey Devils chased netminder Jason LaBarbera in the first period and took advantage of backup Curtis Sanford's miscue later in the frame en route to a 5-3 win on Tuesday night.

Vancouver closed to within 4-3 late in the third, but had trouble breaking out of its zone with Sanford pulled in the final 88 seconds and coughed up an empty-net goal to Dainius Zubrus.

"The second and third, I thought we played pretty good," said Vancouver forward Mats Sundin. "But obviously being down 3-0 after the first, that's unacceptable. We have to be a lot better, especially on home ice."

The loss was the Canucks' third straight and, coupled with Calgary's 3-1 win over St. Louis, dropped them seven points behind the first-place Flames in the Northwest Division standings.

The good news is that Luongo, who has missed 24 games while recovering from a strained left groin, could return for Thursday night's visit by the Phoenix Coyotes.

Luongo, who sports a 2.17 goals-against average and .928 save percentage in 19 games this season, took a big step forward Monday when he participated in his first full practice with his teammates and declared himself 100 per cent.

In Luongo's absence, Vancouver has won just nine of 24 games and put itself in a deep hole early on Tuesday.

LaBarbera and Sanford showed signs of nervousness, but they didn't get much help from their teammates a day after Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault had called for his club to start showing a better effort.

LaBarbera's night was over by the 3:29 mark of the first period after Zach Parise notched his team-leading 25th goal on New Jersey's sixth shot, depositing Travis Zajac's rebound following a two-on-one.

LaBarbera was caught out of position as he slid outside his crease while making the save and left a gaping net. He departed in favour of Sanford.

"He didn't look sharp so I just thought we needed to make a change right away," said Vigneault. "Not the start that he wanted, not the start that we wanted. We have to deal with it."

Less than eight minutes later, Sanford was stripped of the puck behind the Canucks net and watched Brian Gionta jam home his 11th to make it 3-0 midway through the frame.

Fans then booed the Canucks as the first-period buzzer sounded, with the Devils holding a 12-4 shots advantage.

In the second, Alex Burrows buried a Ryan Kesler rebound into an open net to cut the lead to 3-1. Devils netminder Scott Clemmensen then robbed Mats Sundin and Pavol Demitra to keep it a two-goal game after 40 minutes.

Clemmensen made 26 saves for his 16th victory of the season, twice as many he totalled in parts of eight previous seasons.

"I tried to get back on the right track after having lost my last three starts," said Clemmensen. "So it was important for me just to get a win, just to kind of get some building blocks going again.

"Hopefully, tonight's win is a step in the right direction."

But Zajac restored the Devils' three-goal lead at 4:19 of the third period. He took advantage of a poor line change between Vancouver defencemen Willie Mitchell and Mattias Ohlund and converted a give-and-go with Jamie Langenbrunner on a three-on-two rush.

The New Jersey line of Zajac, Langenbrunner and Parise combined for six points, with Langenbrunner and Patrik Elias registering two assists apiece.

With the win, the fourth in their past 18 visits to Vancouver, the Devils improved to 25-15-3 and moved to within two points of Atlantic Division-leading Philadelphia, which fell 4-2 to Pittsburgh on Tuesday.

Demitra and Steve Bernier added third-period goals for the Canucks (22-18-5).

Winger Taylor Pyatt returned to the Vancouver lineup after missing eight games with a broken bone in his foot, relegating rookie Jannik Hansen to the press box.

With files from the Canadian Press