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Flyers are down to final, fateful week

There have been a few times during this up-and-down year when it seemed the Flyers' season was teetering on the edge.

There have been a few times during this up-and-down year when it seemed the Flyers' season was teetering on the edge.

But there never has been a week like this.

Tonight, when the Flyers face the Pittsburgh Penguins in Mellon Arena, they begin a stretch of three games in which they will make or break their playoff fate.

The Flyers and Bruins are tied for the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, with Washington one point behind after its 4-1 home win over Carolina last night. The Bruins are ahead of the Flyers on the season-series tiebreaker.

In the remaining three games, tonight in Pittsburgh, Friday at home against New Jersey andSunday at home vs. the Penguins, the Flyers need to collect at least four points to clinch a playoff berth.

It's the beginning of what could be a nerve-wracking week filled with the possibility of hanging on to or falling out of the playoffs.

It could go to the very last day. A Flyers win tonight would put them three points ahead with two games to play. The Capitals have two games remaining - tomorrow vs. Tampa Bay and Saturday vs. Florida, both at home. The Bruins have three games remaining - at New Jersey tonight, at Ottawa on Friday and home vs. Buffalo on Saturday.

Washington's victory last night enabled it to tie Carolina for first place in the Southeast Division. The Hurricanes, who have a tiebreaker edge on the Caps, also have two games left, tonight vs. Tampa Bay and Friday vs. Florida, both at home.

If the Flyers lose tonight, well, keep holding your breath, as the players have been.

"It's always in the back of your mind," Jeff Carter said Monday, at the start of this very tense week. "It feels like we're winning games and getting all the points we can, but everyone is just keeping pace. You've just got to keep going.''

Getting two points from Pittsburgh, well, that is not going to be easy. Pittsburgh missed a chance to clinch a division title for the first time in 10 years on Monday night at the Rangers.

Pittsburgh could do that tonight against a team it loves to beat and one it destroyed, 7-1, the last time the teams played on March 16. But not all of the season history falls in the Penguins' favor.

The Flyers won the first four games against the Penguins and beat them, 8-2, on Dec. 11 at the Wachovia Center. The Flyers lead the season series, 4-2.

"Look at our first four games against them," winger Scott Hartnell said. "We did pretty well. We know we can score some goals. But I think the main thing against Pittsburgh is shutting them down."

That might have been an easier task earlier in the season when Pittsburgh had significant injuries, including a high ankle sprain to Sidney Crosby.

The Pens are healthy now and will be a hard team to keep off the board.

"They're playing well and they're confident right now but there are a lot of good teams in the East and they're just one of them," Flyers coach John Stevens said. "We're going to have to bear down to beat them."

Two things the Flyers will have going their way tonight is the fact that they pulled themselves together since the 7-1 loss and they have R.J. Umberger in the lineup for the first time since he was hurt during the last game in Pittsburgh.

Umberger has six goals against the Penguins this season and he knows the implications of tonight's game.

"We need to take care of business first," Umberger said. "We have three big games and we could see either one of these teams in a playoff series. So we need to set a tone and go out and play hard against them." *