Three games into the Eastern Conference finals, the Flyers seem to have run out of lifelines.

All the magic that had enveloped this team since April began is becoming a mere memory after the Pittsburgh Penguins pushed the Flyers to the brink of elimination with a 4-1 victory last night at the Wachovia Center.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Company are just a Thursday victory away from a four-game sweep that would see the Penguins advance to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1992, when Mario Lemieux carried the team to the Cup over Chicago.

Scott Hartnell is miffed about that.

"There's no quitters," the Flyers winger said. "We do care. It's frustrating to me that they've already picked the final: It's Detroit and Pittsburgh, even before the series started. That's what ticks me off. It gets our blood boiling a little bit. We've just got to go out and play like we've got something to prove.

"We can beat these guys. We beat them five times during the regular season. We got to get in our minds that this is a beatable hockey team. Right now, I think everyone is thinking these guys are way too good, they have too much skill. . . . We have to go out there and play Flyers hockey. We're not doing that."

The Flyers trailed by 2-1 going into the third period. To that point, they had a paltry eight shots on goal. Rookie Steve Downie, whose turnover cost the Flyers Game 2, set up the killer goal when he tried a risky, cross-ice pass that was picked off by Malkin. The puck ended up in the net for a 3-1 Pens lead on a backhander by Ryan Malone.

The Flyers failed themselves in several ways. They spent too much time in their own end, they were checked off the puck too easily, and they could not get a forecheck going.

"I just don't see our execution getting up the ice," coach John Stevens said. "I mean, we have a lot of pucks that we start out with; we don't get through the neutral zone into the offensive zone. To me, that's where we're really falling short in this series. Our execution when we have the puck is not where it needs to be."

Michel Therrien's Penguins do not get enough credit for being a sound defensive club that can shut down even the best of offenses. They have done just that, playing a 1-4 trap with the lead.

The Penguins have outplayed the Flyers in every facet so far. At the same time, the Flyers are without their best defensive pair, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn, because of injuries.

"They're a patient team," Flyers center Mike Richards said. ". . . They have speed and they hurt you off the rush. Give them credit. They are playing very well defensively. We seem reluctant to get the puck in deep and try to get by them."

Despite an emotional pregame tribute to slain Philadelphia police officer Stephen Liczbinski and another stirring rendition of "God Bless America," the Flyers gave up two quick goals in less than nine minutes.

Ryan Whitney's first goal of the playoffs made it 1-0 at 5 minutes, 3 seconds. The defenseman skated in from the left circle, then fired the puck off Jason Smith's skate.

The second goal was a soft one. Marian Hossa weaved through the slot, firing from 46 feet through defenseman Lasse Kukkonen's legs and beating Marty Biron inside the right post.

R.J. Umberger cut the deficit to 2-1 at 10:59 with his 10th goal of the playoffs, beating Marc-Andre Fleury off a rebound.

The very thing that has been the Flyers' strength - scoring balance - has been their weakness in this series. Only Jeff Carter and Richards seem to getting scoring chances.

"I don't know if I completely have an explanation right now," Joffrey Lupul said. "We didn't get many chances. When we did, we missed the net or they blocked shots. We're skating, digging, but they are doing a good job defensively."

Contact staff writer Tim Panaccio at 215-854-2847 or tpanaccio@phillynews.com.