PHILADELPHIA -- The NHL's leading point producers, the Philadelphia Flyers, played host to the League's cellar dwellers Saturday afternoon at Wells Fargo Center.
In the end, better goaltending prevailed.
The New Jersey Devils relied on a solid game plan and some exceptional play in net from Johan Hedberg, who finished with 26 saves, on the way to a 3-1 victory. It marked the first Devils' win in Philadelphia since Dec. 4, 2008, when Patrik Elias scored in overtime against Martin Biron.
Elias would strike twice Saturday, knocking home the eventual game-winner in the first period and the clincher into an empty late in the third, as the Devils improved to 5-0-1 in their last six games.
"They're the exact same New Jersey team that we faced last time (a 2-1 Flyers victory on Jan. 8)," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. "They've played really hard here six or seven games ago, then they went on to take nine of 10 points and they fought hard here for a win tonight."
Counting two playoff losses to the Flyers last season, New Jersey was actually winless in its last eight trips to the City of Brotherly Love.
"It's been encouraging," Elias said. "We're making plays and that's been the biggest difference. It's more compact for us up the ice and back in our zone. We're in the right place and not giving the other team too much time. The Flyers still got good chances, don't get me wrong, but overall we're making plays defensively in the neutral zone. We're trying to get the puck up quickly and, when it's up there, we want to hold onto it."
The Flyers, who lost for the first time in five games, have a quick turnaround as they travel to Chicago to face the Blackhawks in a Sunday matinee at United Center.
Goalie Brian Boucher didn't sense the Flyers were looking ahead to that showdown with the Blackhawks, the team that defeated them in the Stanley Cup Final in six games last spring.
"Parts of our last game weren’t so good against Ottawa," Boucher said. "The start to this game wasn't good either. I think we would like to get a better start, but I don't think it was because guys were looking ahead. I hadn't heard anybody talk about it, so I don't think that's it."
The Flyers entered the game first in the NHL with 31 wins and 67 points. The Vancouver Canucks, who played host to the Calgary Flames on Saturday night, were second with 66 points.
"I don't think we took them too lightly," Flyers forward Scott Hartnell said. "I think we just made a couple errors defensively, and they were able to capitalize. Whoever you're playing, it's going to be tough to play catch-up."
The Devils, meanwhile, notched their 15th victory of the season and seventh on the road. Hedberg, who finished with nine saves in the second and 12 in the third, said his team's opening 20 minutes against the Flyers was the best he's seen this season. With the victory, the Devils have put together their first three-game winning streak since a five-game run from Dec. 12-21, 2009.
"I didn't have that many saves in the first," Hedberg said. "We were fast, we were aggressive and we were initiating everything in the first. It could have been more than 2-0. For me, at least in net, it was the best period of the year."
"We want to play with intensity, we want to skate, we want to be good with the puck," Devils coach Jacques Lemaire said. "We want to play with confidence, which we didn't have at the start. They're good players; they just have to believe that they can do it. They have to get prepared every game to play their best."
And they did it on Saturday short one defender when veteran Colin White left the game after just seven shifts (4:07 of ice time) in the first period with a lower-body injury. The loss of White forced Lemaire to reinsert Anssi Salmela, who began the game playing wing, on defense.
"Anssi stepped back on the blue line and he didn't miss a beat," Hedberg said. "He's playing great on the power play and skating well. You never want to lose one of your better defenseman, but in think Anssi played a great game."
Hedberg's best save came with 2:46 remaining in the third and his team holding a 2-1 lead. Mike Richards threaded the seam to Jeff Carter at the right hashmark but Hedberg, sliding to his left, got his left pad on the attempt.
"I knew [Carter] was coming there but I think I overplayed Richards a little bit too much," Hedberg said. "He kind of delayed the play and came in. I thought he would sauce it at me so I wanted to stay square to him and then got it through to Carter. He got a little stick on it and delayed it so it gave me a chance to get over there."
Added Elias: "Johan made a couple of unbelievable saves to keep us in at the right time … we'll take it."
Flyers' forward Claude Giroux was whistled for cross checking 32 seconds after Carter was denied, putting his team in a deeper hole. Philadelphia eventually pulled Boucher to create a 5-on-5 situation, but Elias connected for his 12th of the season with 41.4 seconds remaining.
The Flyers pared the deficit to 2-1 with just 19.5 seconds left in the second when James van Riemsdyk tipped a perfectly-placed pass by Giroux off his backhand from between the circles. It was the only blemish on the stat sheet for Hedberg, whose second period included a nice glove save off a left circle whistler by van Riemsdyk off a semi-breakaway at the 1:42 mark and a denial of a Chris Pronger point blast and ensuing rebound jam attempt by Richards at 6:55.
Boucher, making his first start in three games, also did his part in the second after allowing two goals on 10 shots in the first. He turned away all six shots in his direction, including stops on Salmela and Ilya Kovalchuk eight minutes into the second. Elias gave the Devils a 2-0 lead 12:12 into the first when he carried the puck off the end boards to the front of the net before squeezing a shot past Boucher.
"[Mark Fayne] kept the puck in and did a good job to put it behind the net past two guys," Elias said. "I grabbed it in the corner and looked up and saw [Brian Rolston] in front. I just waited to see if he was going to get open and he talked to me to keep going, that he covered that guy, so I skated in and squeezed it in."
The Devils opened a 1-0 lead 5:25 into the first on Henrik Tallinder's point blast past a screened Boucher -- his first goal since Oct. 9.
Hedberg, who was making his first start since Jan. 8 when he yielded two goals on 10 shots before being pulled 14:41 into a 2-1 loss in Philadelphia, had just five saves in the first. Martin Brodeur, who will start Sunday when the Devils host the Florida Panthers in Newark, had started five in a row since that loss in Philadelphia. The club had gone 4-0-1 since Brodeur was back between the pipes, but Lemaire opted to give Hedberg the nod on Saturday against the NHL's best team.
It was the right decision.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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