NEWARK, N.J. - Here's something the Flyers have not had to address this season: a three-game losing skid.

In a battle for first place in the Atlantic Division, John Madden's two goals helped the New Jersey Devils notch a 4-2 victory tonight at the Prudential Center.

If the Flyers had won, they would have catapulted into first place based on fewer games played. Instead, they dropped four points behind New Jersey (39).

It has not been a December to remember: The Flyers are 2-4-1 this month.

"We've got to regroup and get back to playing 60 minutes," coach John Stevens said. "You come here and feel you had your chances and leave a goal short. It's the same old story. We have to find ways to win these hockey games - get the lead and keep the lead. I felt we had a letdown in the second period. We started chasing the game again."

The Devils capitalized on their chances and got an emotional lift from goalie Martin Brodeur, who stoned Danny Briere on a second-period penalty shot.

"Just before the penalty shot, I had a two-on-one and shot it wide," Briere said. ". . . Next shift, I get that breakaway, get hauled down, get that penalty shot. We're still on the power play, we're buzzing.

"I can't remember exactly what happened, but they go down and score that shorthanded goal. We had three, four good chances to score in a row. Brodeur made the key saves. For me, that was the point where you realize they had momentum on their side."

Briere delivered 6 minutes, 44 seconds into the third period with a power-play goal on a wrist shot, cutting the deficit to 3-2. That was as good as it got for the Flyers.

"Before, we were taking nights off completely," Briere said. "Now, it's like we're taking a period every game where we are not there, not making plays, and in a daze or something. I don't know how to explain it. We have to find ways to be more consistent."

After a scoreless opening period, the Flyers had a power play carry over into the second, and Mike Richards scored his 15th goal at 40 seconds to make it 1-0.

The lead lasted briefly as New Jersey tied it at 2:49 on a power-play goal by Madden, who knocked in a rebound on goalie Antero Niittymaki.

The Flyers got a huge break soon after on a four-minute major to Patrik Elias for high-sticking Derian Hatcher (it actually was Richards' stick), but they failed to score. During the sequence, Sheldon Brookbank hauled down Briere, leading to the penalty shot. With his stick, Brodeur snuffed the life out of Briere's five-hole attempt.

"I heard from someone before when you have a goalie like him or [Dominik] Hasek, they're not playing the same style as other goalies, so you try to do the unexpected," Briere said. "Very rarely do I go five-hole; I tried to surprise him with something different."

Brodeur said he thought Briere would try a backhand shot.

"But these guys are so great, you never know what they're going to do," Brodeur said. "Just before he took that penalty shot, he came in on a two-on-one and tried to go high glove. So, I kind of put that out of my mind. That helped me a little bit. He's such a skilled player, a little bit one way or the other and it's in the net, so I stayed in the middle, and he shot it right at me."

The save gave the Devils momentum as they quickly scored on Madden's shorthanded marker, his second goal of the game, off a two-on-one rush up the ice with Jamie Langenbrunner, making it 2-1 at 10:12.

"Penalty shots can be big turning points in games," Flyers winger Scottie Upshall said. ". . . At times like that, we need to put pucks in the net. Making big saves can be turning points."

Arron Asham made it 3-1 about 31/2 minutes later with a one-timer in the slot.

"We're only as good as our last game, and the last three, we haven't gotten the points we need to," Upshall said. "We sat down a few days ago and said we need to be at our best going into the Christmas break. With three games left, we need to really focus in on getting six points."

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