The New Jersey Devils kept their faint playoff hopes alive, had a little fun and forced the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia Flyers to keep answering questions about their late-season woes.
Patrik Elias scored his eighth career hat trick and the Devils avoided being spectators at the playoffs for the first time since 1996 with a 4-2 victory over the Flyers on Friday night.
"Mathematically, we're still in," Elias said. "We're trying to play well, work hard and have fun. We'll see where we're at in five games."
The Devils are on the brink of seeing their playoff streak ended. They need to win their final five games and basically have the Rangers and Sabres lose all their remaining games.
"We came out to compete," goalie Johan Hedberg said after making 34 in his first start since Feb. 25. "We know we are most likely out of it. It would be easy to lay down. We have a lot of pride in the room and a coaching staff that won't let us a relax for a second. The organization has high expectations. Everybody in here wants to keep winning."
The Devils won because they played better than the Flyers, and were a little luckier.
Rookie Nick Palmieri got the game-winner for New Jersey (36-36-5) midway through the third period when an Ilya Kovalchuk pass hit off his skate and went in the net. Elias got an insurance goal when a rebound of a Brian Rolston shot went in off his skate.
"It's bittersweet," said Rolston, who had the primary assist on all three of Elias' goals. "We have to be realistic about our chances of making the playoffs. At the same time, we want to feel good about ourselves. As far as I'm concerned, I feel we're one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Having said, we're not in the playoffs. It's just unfortunate we didn't play well in the first half. It was almost a complete opposite in the second half."
James Van Riemsdyk and Jeff Carter scored for the Flyers (46-22-10), who have lost two in a row and three of four. Brian Boucher made 20 saves for Philadelphia.
"We keep talking about being the top team in the league but we haven't played that way," Flyers defenceman Kimmo Timonen said. "For sure we want to be the top team in the East, but right now we have to worry about ourselves and get our game in order. These four games are huge for us. Going into the playoffs, we have to get our game back on track."
The Flyers hold a one-point lead over idle Washington in the race for the best record in the conference. Both teams have four games left.
"As a group and as a whole I felt we weren't good enough," Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette said. "There were a few bright spots but not enough in the concept of our team."
After Carter tied it 2-2 early in the third period, the Devils put the game away with two goals that went into the net off skates and had to survive reviews.
Palmieri got the winner with 11:05 to play by simply being in the right spot at the right time. Kovalchuk carried the puck into the Flyers' zone, skated to the middle and tried to hit the rookie with a pass. The puck hit off the toe of Palmieri's skate and into the net, promoting Boucher to wave his arms in protest. The goal stood.
Elias then finished off his hat trick. Rolston took a shot from the right circle that Boucher stopped. The rebound went out in front and hit off the skate of Elias and went in.
"He had said he hadn't gotten one in a while," Rolston said. "It was nice to make some plays tonight."
Carter tied it at 4:18 of the period, slam-dunking a pass from the goal line by Nikolay Zherdev.
Rolston made two perfect passes to set up Elias and keep the Devils' season alive.
With the Devils trailing 1-0, Rolston carried the puck from centre ice to deep into the Flyers' zone and found Elias between the circles for a one-timer that beat Boucher into the corner of the net.
With the Flyers on a power play a little more than a minute later, Elias stopped the puck along sideboards in his own zone and gave the puck to Rolston. The two quickly skated out of the zone on a 2-on-1 break and Rolston slid a pass between Van Riemsdyk's legs to Elias, who roofed a shot with Boucher guarding the lower half of the net.
Van Riemsdyk, who scored his first career hat trick last weekend, gave the Flyers a 1-0 lead in the first period with his 20th goal of the season. Mike Richards set up the goal with a pass from deep in the right circle into the crease that either deflected off the second-year player into the net at 10:50.