NEWARK, N.J. -- The only constant for the Philadelphia Flyers of late has been their inconsistent play, and they're running out of time to change that as the postseason beckons.
Philadelphia lost Friday for the second straight night and fifth time in seven games, dropping a 4-2 decision to New Jersey at the sold-out Prudential Center. Patrik Elias had a hat trick for the Devils, who remain one point lost or one gained by the eighth-place New York Rangers from being eliminated.
Not only does the loss keep the Devils alive in the postseason chase, but it instilled more hope in rivals Washington and Pittsburgh that the Flyers can be caught for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and the Atlantic Division, respectively.
"As a group I don't think we were good enough," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. "There were a few bright spots, but not enough -- not enough within the concept of our team or within the game itself.
"I think the energy was lacking at times on different lines at different parts of the game. If you are going to be successful, you want to play a game that is full of high intensity. This was inconsistent."
The Flyers' lead over the Capitals remains one point and their advantage on the Penguins is four, but they no longer have a game in hand on either team. Washington can pass Philadelphia for first place in the East on Saturday with a win against the Buffalo Sabres at Verizon Center.
After Saturday the Capitals finish with games against Florida (twice) and Toronto while all of the Penguins' final four contests are against teams in 11th place or lower in the East. Philadelphia, with games against playoff contenders New York on Sunday and Buffalo next Friday along with contests against Ottawa and the New York Islanders, has the toughest road of the three.
"We need to win all of them," Jeff Carter said.
Added captain Mike Richards when asked if he agreed: "[Washington] is playing really well right now, so probably."
Maybe even more important than securing the No. 1 seed for the Flyers in these final four games is a chance to improve their overall play in time for a postseason run. The defending Eastern Conference champions haven't been playing played like a team with 102 points.
Since the calendar flipped to March, Philadelphia has won only 6 of 16 games (6-6-4). There were flashes of dominance against the desperate Devils, and Johan Hedberg had to make 34 saves to collect a win against the Flyers one night after Chris Mason stopped 43 in a 1-0 win -- but there were also too many lapses.
"It is frustrating," Richards said. "It is probably the same things night in and night out. I just don't think we're being strong enough to score goals or intense enough to score goals and there were a couple of good bounces for them and bad bounces for us.
"We need to be intense to create offense and sustain offense, but right now it seems like we're one and done and we've just got to get that back."
Nick Palmieri put the Devils ahead to stay at 8:55 of the final period. Ilya Kovalchuk carried the puck across the offensive zone from left to right and shook Claude Giroux, who lost an edge and fell to the ice, before he sent the puck toward the net. Palmieri was there at the right post to deflect it past goaltender Brian Boucher for his eighth goal of the season.
Elias finished his hat trick at 17:14. Boucher stopped Brian Rolston's shot from the right wing, only to have the rebound deflect off Elias' right skate and into the net for his 19th of the season.
"They battled," New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire said of his team. "They battled because this is not an easy team to play against. They come and they never stop. ... Some of the shots they missed we played really well but other our goalie had to be good."
Carter tied the game at 2-2 early in the third period. The Flyers had a long shift in the offensive zone and a couple of near-misses before Nikolai Zherdev found Carter cutting through the middle unmarked for a redirection at 4:18. It was Carter's 36th of the season.
Elias and Rolston hooked up for a pair of goals less than two minutes apart in the second period to push New Jersey in front. Rolston carried the puck into the left corner and found Elias alone in the high slot for a one-timer Boucher had little chance to stop at 6:28.
That was Elias' 17th of the season, and he added No. 18 at 8:20 -- again with help from Rolston. Philadelphia was on a power play, but it was fraught with missed passes and poor communication and eventually the Devils made them pay. Rolston carried the puck into the offensive zone on a 2-on-1 with forward James vanRiemsdyk as the lone defender. He held on long enough to make vanRiemsdyk commit and slid the puck across to Elias, who snapped a shot under the crossbar for a 2-1 lead.
"He's got good hockey sense," Lemaire said of Elias, who has 32 career goals against the Flyers, the most he's had against any team. "He sees the ice well, gets in good position. Tonight's a different night because when he was in the slot he got the puck. Different night for him -- that's why he scored."
Van Riemsdyk gave the Flyers the lead with the lone goal in a fast-paced first period, thanks to a great effort by Richards.
Richards poked the puck away from a Devils defenseman who was winding up for a shot from the left point and then carried it into the New Jersey zone. He showed great patience after looking like he was going to wind up for a shot, holding the puck despite being on the wrong foot and then finding vanRiemsdyk cutting to the net for an easy redirect at 10:50 of the first.
It was the 20th goal of the season for vanRiemsdyk, who didn't have any in his first 17 games. His goal gives Philadelphia seven players who have scored at least 20 this season, counting Kris Versteeg's totals with both the Flyers and Toronto Maple Leafs. Ville Leino is one goal away from making it eight Flyers with 20 or more.
"It is tough," Carter said. "[Blair Betts'] line did a good job of getting us going in all three periods. We had some sustained pressure in their end for long periods of time but it seems like we still have more, more to give. This time of year we need everything."
James van Riemsdyk
1 - 0 PHI
1 - 1 Tie
2 - 1 NJD
2 - 2 Tie
3 - 2 NJD