EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) - The New Jersey Devils continue to move up the Eastern Conference playoff charts at a fast clip.
Zach Parise scored two goals and Brian Gionta had three assists to help the Devils beat Philadelphia 4-1 Thursday night for their ninth straight win and pull even with the Flyers in the Eastern Conference playoff standings.
The teams are tied for fifth in the conference with 97 points and will face each other again on Sunday, also at Continental Airlines Arena.
It wasn't so long ago that New Jersey's chances of being in the playoffs at all were in question. Now, the Devils have a reasonable chance to catch the Atlantic Division-leading New York Rangers, who lost to Pittsburgh 5-3 Thursday to remain at 100 points.
"A couple of weeks ago, nothing was set in stone," said Scott Gomez, who scored a second-period goal and assisted on Parise's first score. "Then guys kind of got that Game 7 mentality, and we started playing smarter."
New Jersey equaled its longest winning streak of the season, accomplished from Jan. 3 to Jan. 21.
"This one's different because we needed the points," said Gomez. "It took us a while, for whatever reason, but when everybody's doing their role, we're tough to beat."
Philadelphia played for the fourth straight game without second-leading scorer Peter Forsberg, who is nursing a sore groin. The Devils established the tempo early and took a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals by Parise and Sergei Brylin.
"We were way behind the pace in the first period," said Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock. "Their puck movement was quicker, they got beyond our forecheck and they looked more ready to play than we did at the start."
In his first year with the Devils after being the team's No. 1 choice (17th overall) in the 2003 Entry Draft, Parise has found a home on the first line with Gomez and leading scorer Gionta after coach Lou Lamoriello made the move last month.
On Thursday, he scored once in the first period and once in the third, with the latter goal coming 4 minutes after Niko Dimitrakos had cut the Devils lead to 3-1 with a power-play goal.
Parise's first goal initially appeared to have been scored by Gionta, which would have given him 46 and tied Pat Verbeek's 18-year-old club record. But replays showed the puck glanced off Parise's skate and went between goaltender Robert Esche's legs.
"I actually picked up my foot to try and get it out of the way," Parise said, "but it caught it and it went five-hole."
Gomez received a gift in the second period when his shot from a tight angle to Esche's left popped up in the air and hit Flyers defenseman Mike Rathje, then hit the top of Esche's head before falling into the goal
Esche stopped 32 shots for Philadelphia. Martin Brodeur made 33 saves for New Jersey to earn his 41st victory of the season, missing his 101st career shutout when Dimitrakos punched home a rebound of a slap shot by Frederick Meyer with 4:03 elapsed in the third period.
Notes: The Flyers had hoped to have Forsberg available and put him through a workout in the morning ... New Jersey D Richard Matvichuk missed his second straight game with a groin strain. Viktor Kozlov also was scratched. ... The Devils announced the signing of forward Travis Zajac of Winnipeg, their first choice (20th overall) in the 2004 entry draft. The 20-year-old had 18 goals and 29 assists in 46 games for North Dakota, which he helped lead to the NCAA Frozen Four this spring. ... If the Devils overtake the Flyers and finish second in the Atlantic Division, it will mark the first time since 1995 that Philadelphia has finished lower than second.
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