THE LAST 3 SECONDS in overtime and the accompanying shootout mirrored the Flyers' entire third period.

In just a blink of an eye, the Flyers went from being convinced they had the game sewn up tighter than a fighter's stitches to being jerked back to earth by the San Jose Sharks.

Mike Richards skated across the blue line with approximately 5 seconds left, patiently waiting for Danny Briere to cross paths with Sharks goaltender Antero Niittymaki. Richards' shot, which trickled through two players and through Niittymaki's five-hole, touched the tip of the goal line exactly when time expired.

As the Flyers celebrated what they thought was Richards' game-winning goal, and were about to leave the ice, the replay officials in Toronto already had called to send them to a shootout.

And, ultimately, their first loss in three games.

"I don't really think that part of it matters," Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger said. "If you can't hold a 4-1 lead with 13 minutes to go, the rest of it doesn't matter."

It never should have gotten to that point, Pronger said.

The Flyers threw away a three-goal lead in the final 13 minutes of regulation, allowing the Sharks' lethal power play to propel them to a wild, 5-4 shootout win at the stunned Wells Fargo Center.

The Flyers were 14-0-1 before last night when opening the third period with a lead.

"We're going to look back at this and it's going to sting," coach Peter Laviolette said. "We kicked up a 4-1 lead. The reason why we blew a 4-1 lead is penalties. I don't think, five-on-five, we gave up a half-dozen chances. We knew they had a dangerous power-play unit coming into it, sixth in the league, and we gave them the opportunities they needed."

The Flyers spent 8 minutes in the penalty box in the third period alone. Briere was responsible for 6 of those minutes, with a double-minor high-sticking call and a tripping infraction that resulted in a Sharks goal only 2 seconds into the power play.

San Jose manhandled the Flyers in the faceoff dot, winning 63 percent of the draws - the Flyers' worst faceoff performance of the season.

The Sharks' Joe Thornton won the draw directly to Joe Pavelski, all alone in front of Sergei Bobrovsky, as part of a designed faceoff play for the game-tying goal.

"It's part of the game, and part of winning the little battles like that," Flyers forward Claude Giroux said. "If it's in the corner, or a faceoff, it's part of the game. If you win the faceoff, you start with the puck, or else you start playing defense."

For almost the entire third period, the Flyers were on the defensive and not the offensive. In fact, less than a minute earlier, Laviolette had whistled for a timeout with the score 4-3 to tell his team to "get back to work," since he realized they were in a dogfight.

"When you have a lead like that, you want to keep it," Giroux said. "And good teams find a way to keep it like that and the game finishes 4-1. We're obviously not happy about our game."

The inexplicable loss, after the Flyers already had started coasting in the third period, wasted goals from Ville Leino, Nik Zherdev and Scott Hartnell - three players who had combined for a 17-game goal drought.

"It's hard to take any good out of the first 40 minutes," Laviolette said. "I guess the only thing you can do is learn from it."

Both Pronger and Richards said the learning curve is a short one - and the message is simple: Stay out of the penalty box.

"We've got to stay out of the box," Pronger said. "We've got to keep skating. We had full control of the game; we were dominating every aspect of the game up until . . . I don't know if we let our minds wander or whatever. We got lackadaisical and started playing a little river hockey, and they've got players who can put the puck in the net."

Richards echoed Pronger's sentiments, calling the Flyers' problem fixable, since they tend to take more penalties with the lead.

"It stings a lot," Richards said. "But I think it's something that's easily correctable. It's easy to do. We shoot ourselves in the foot every game. It almost seems like we take it for granted that we're up. Then we slow down. Then we need to take penalties because we're out of position and we stop moving our feet. It's something that we're going to have to correct."

Richards said having the lead in your home barn in the third period, a win "should be automatic."

"We opened up the door," Laviolette said, "and they barged through it."

Phaneuf close?

The Toronto Maple Leafs could have their captain, Dion Phaneuf, back in the lineup as early as tonight when the Flyers visit the Air Canada Centre. Phaneuf has been out since Nov. 2 when an inadvertent skate sliced a deep dash in his left leg.

Phaneuf underwent emergency surgery to repair the damage and returned to the ice for the first time last weekend.

"He could play [tonight]," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. "We haven't decided yet."

Toronto's two-game winning streak was snapped last night in Pittsburgh, a 5-2 loss to the Penguins. The Leafs have picked up just five wins (5-8-3) since Phaneuf left the lineup.

Tonight wraps up the Flyers' seventh set of back-to-back games, they are 3-1-2 in the second game this season.

Slap shots

The Flyers have only one regulation loss in their last nine games (5-1-3) . . . The Flyers' first goal, by Claude Giroux, was a milestone for both Jeff Carter (300th NHL point) and Giroux (100th NHL point) . . . The Flyers are 1-3 in shootouts.

For more news and analysis, read Frank Seravalli's blog, Frequent Flyers, at

http://go.philly.com/frequentflyers. Follow him on Twitter at