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Crunch time arrives for Flyers

It's the NHL's version of a trifecta. The Flyers have three games remaining, which will determine whether they make the playoffs, and their seeding, in the Eastern Conference.

It's the NHL's version of a trifecta.

The Flyers have three games remaining, which will determine whether they make the playoffs, and their seeding, in the Eastern Conference.

Washington's 4-1 rout of Carolina last night put the Capitals (90 points) within one point of the Flyers, who need four points in their final three games to clinch a playoff berth.

The Flyers could finish as high as fourth in the conference or fall out of the playoff race and into ninth or 10th place.

"Every point now, obviously, is bigger than it was a week ago," forward Jeff Carter said. "It's going to be a big week."

The games are against two teams - Pittsburgh and New Jersey - that have given the Flyers fits lately. They face the Penguins tonight at Mellon Arena.

This likely will be the first season since 1993-94 in which neither the Flyers nor the Devils will have won the Atlantic Division title. Pittsburgh, the division leader, can also win the conference title by beating the Flyers twice this week.

On March 16, the Penguins annihilated the Flyers, 7-1, capping the Flyers' four-game losing streak.

"It's a big challenge for us,' Carter said. "We have to come out and get on them. If we play the way we know we can, we could come out of there with two points."

The Flyers might meet Pittsburgh in the playoffs. So a little success now could pay dividends down the road.

"It's important to have some amount of success just to get into the playoffs - that's the bottom line," Flyers coach John Stevens said. "Our focus is on the game [tonight] and the two that follow."

The playoffs are "a separate animal," he said. "Our focus is to get in, but you certainly want to be playing well no matter who you are playing going into a playoff situation."

The players seemed to realize that they need to show something against the Penguins tonight and in Sunday's regular-season finale, in Philadelphia.

"It's a huge game," defenseman Kimmo Timonen said of tonight's contest. "We can't think about how we played a couple weeks or in Pittsburgh."

The Flyers won the first four games of the season series, outscoring the Penguins by 20-8. But they have lost the last two, by 11-4.

"We know we can score some goals," Flyers forward Scott Hartnell said. "The main thing against Pittsburgh is shutting them down. They have some pretty elite players over there."

Evgeni Malkin leads the Penguins with 104 points, second only to Alexander Ovechkin's 109 in the NHL. Sidney Crosby is second on the Pens with 69 points. He has played just a little more than half the season, having been injured.

Does it do any good to get Crosby riled up and possibly off his game?

"I don't know if you want to get him mad because he'll probably play a little better," Hartnell said. "If they're sleeping, you let them sleep. You don't want to wake them up by hitting them.

"They've got some top-notch players who can turn it on, on any shift. We have to be on the ball for 60 minutes. We realize that. It's crunch time. We need some points."

Loose pucks. R.J. Umberger (left knee) said he was expecting to play. Umberger practiced with Carter and Mike Knuble yesterday. . . . Scottie Upshall could be the odd man out, given he was one of six players wearing the fourth-line colors at practice. He also took extra practice. . . . Stevens will likely keep Riley Cote in the lineup, especially because the Penguins likely aren't going to sit Georges Laraque, an enforcer who played well against the New York Rangers on Monday.