Late season doldrums

DAVID W. UNKLE -- For SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 7:45 PM ET

PHILADELPHIA--Earlier in the week, Philadelphia Flyers head coach Ken Hitchcock diagnosed his team's recent struggles as the result of "not being ready emotionally at a high level" at this point in the regular season.

In "Hitch-speak," that translates to a team that relies too much on talent and not enough on effort.

Saturday's 4-1 loss to division-rival New Jersey left the Flyers four points behind the coveted top-spot in the Atlantic Division, but it's the effort more than the outcome that bothers Hitchcock.

For the second straight game, the Flyers lost the first period battle that Hitchcock feels is critical for success and the end-result was another tick in the loss column.

Beginning with a 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Mar. 17, Hitchcock felt that the Flyers had once-again turned the corner, getting a boost from the return of injured players and because the team "initiated in the first period."

"If you look at what's going on," said Hitchcock, "the team that initiates at the start is usually victorious over 70% of the time."

And that's exactly what the Devils, looking to gain a better foothold in the division race, did to the Flyers.

"I thought the difference in the game was (New Jersey's) determination defensively was a little better than ours was offensively," said Hitchcock.

The Devils converted a Mike Knuble turnover near the New Jersey net into John Madden's 15th goal of the season at 4:33 of the first period, and never looked back.

"We gave up an odd man rush to start the game and it ended up in our net," said Hitchcock, adding that "there were a lot of loose pucks that either (netminder Martin) Brodeur made the save on or they got to and we didn't...overall, they were all committed physically."

The Devils used two second period tallies by Scott Gomez and Jason Wiemer less than two minutes apart to take a three-goal lead and thwart Philadelphia's hopes of gaining ground on the idle Rangers.

"When you're starting to play catch-up, you have to open up the game and sometimes you come back and sometimes you give up more," explained Hitchcock in his Thursday assessment.

Simon Gagne's powerplay goal at 3:44 of the third period was the seventh consecutive game in which the Flyers scored with the man-advantage.

"When you're playing against teams who are wounded bears or desperate, they're looking for a reason to play and when you give them a reason, they keep going," said Hitchcock.

Sunday's opponent, the New York Islanders fall into the former category and the Devils, 4-5-1 in their last ten prior to their matchup against the Flyers, fall into the latter.

"It's not just chasing the New York Rangers, it's also chasing Buffalo," explained Hitchcock. "The third or fourth seed is home ice (advantage) and we want home ice because it's going to be that close."

"We need to move on to tomorrow and not dwell on this," said Mike Knuble. "We have two huge games coming up."

First place could be up for grabs when the Flyers tangle with the Rangers on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.


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