Battling for the Atlantic Division title for much of the season, the Philadelphia Flyers look to pull within two points of first place when they host the New Jersey Devils.
The Flyers and New York Rangers have been locked in a tight race for the division crown for most of 2005-06. While Philadelphia is four points behind New York, the Flyers have two games in hand, which they'll make up on Friday and Saturday.
After facing New Jersey at the Wachovia Center, Philadelphia heads to Nassau Coliseum to take on the New York Islanders on Sunday. The Rangers have been off since losing 4-1 to Ottawa on Thursday night, and don't play again until Tuesday - when they host the Flyers in the first of two matchups in the final three weeks of the regular season.
With victories on Friday and Saturday, Philadelphia would come into the showdown with the Rangers tied for the top spot.
The Flyers will try to take the first step toward that scenario when they take on the Devils, one of eight Atlantic Division opponents Philadelphia faces in its final 10 games. The Flyers will be trying to get back on track after having their four-game winning streak snapped in a 3-2 loss to Toronto on Tuesday night.
Joni Pitkanen's goal 3:58 into the game gave the Flyers the lead, but after the teams went into the third period tied 1-1, the Maple Leafs scored twice in the opening 2:02 and held on for the victory.
"Every game now is huge, especially these games in our division against the Rangers, Islanders and Devils," Flyers center Jeff Carter said. "They are going to be tough games with everyone either battling for position or trying to get into the playoffs."
Simon Gagne, the Flyers' leader with 41 goals, was held without a point for the second straight game and fourth in six games.
"It's the kind of game you look at at the end of the season and that may be two points we could have had in the standings," Gagne said. "All the work we did the last few games was great, but to play the way we played tonight and not put the effort into at least getting the chance to get those two points is not the right way to do it."
The Flyers will have to put the effort in to get two points against the Devils, who defeated Buffalo 3-1 on Thursday night for their second straight win and third in four games. The victory over the Sabres gave New Jersey consecutive wins over the top two teams in the Northeast Division. The Devils knocked off Ottawa, which also leads the Eastern Conference, on Tuesday.
New Jersey is tied for sixth place in the conference with Tampa Bay and Montreal.
"In the last few games we've done a good job of playing with intensity, and playing desperate," said forward Brian Gionta, who scored his team-leading 41st goal Thursday. "That's what we need to do for the next nine games."
Three of those games are against Philadelphia, and New Jersey also has two matchups remaining with Montreal.
Martin Brodeur stopped 29 shots Thursday to tie Jacques Plante for fourth on the career victory list with 437.
TEAM LEADERS: Devils - Gionta, 41 goals and 71 points; Scott Gomez, 42 assists; Cam Janssen, 91 PIM. Flyers - Gagne, 41 goals; Peter Forsberg, 53 assists and 72 points; Donald Brashear, 134 PIM.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Devils - Power play: 17.2 percent (68 for 396), 21st in NHL. Penalty killing: 81.8 percent (256 for 313), 18th. Flyers - Power play: 18.3 percent (74 for 405), 13th. Penalty killing: 78.8 percent (323 for 410), 27th.
GOALTENDERS: Devils - Brodeur (33-23-7, 5 SO, 2.66 GAA); Scott Clemmensen (3-4-2, 3.35). Flyers - Antero Niittymaki (22-13-6, 2, 2.96); Robert Esche (18-9-4, 1, 3.06).
SEASON SERIES: Flyers, 3-2.
LAST MEETING: March 21; Flyers, 2-1. At Philadelphia, Niittymaki made 21 saves, Forsberg scored in his return to the lineup and Gagne got his 40th goal for the Flyers, who won for only the fifth time in 12 games.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Devils - 14-16-6 on the road; Flyers - 20-11-6 at home.