The Philadelphia Flyers didn't earn a playoff berth last year until the final day of the regular season.
They won't have to wait so long this year.
The Flyers could clinch a postseason spot as early as Saturday night if they beat the Dallas Stars, who are in a much tighter race to make the playoffs.
It's a far different situation than last season when Philadelphia (43-19-8) didn't claim its spot in the postseason until Game 82 with a shootout win over the New York Rangers.
While a playoff berth seems inevitable, Philadelphia is in a close race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. No East club has more points than the Flyers, but there are four within six points of them. Their closest competitors in that chase -- Washington and Pittsburgh -- both play in Philadelphia next week.
The Flyers, though, have been playing poorly against inferior competition.
Sandwiched around a 3-2 win over last-place Florida, they have lost twice to an Atlanta team which has the East's worst record since Jan. 5. After giving up four third-period goals in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Thrashers last Saturday, Philadelphia lost 4-3 in a shootout at Atlanta on Thursday.
Danny Briere tied the game with 1:17 left in regulation -- his second goal of the night -- but he and Mike Richards failed to convert Philadelphia's only shootout attempts.
"It wasn't our best piece of work but the fact that we got a point is something that we can be happy about," said Brian Boucher, who had 22 saves. "Obviously we would have liked a better effort."
Philadelphia is 3-4-2 in its last nine, giving up at least four goals in five of those defeats.
Saturday is the last time in the regular season the Flyers will face a team from the West. They are 8-5-4 in inter-conference games, but one of those victories was a 3-1 win over the Stars on Feb. 5.
Dallas (38-25-8) is 7-2-2 in its last 11 and is tied for sixth in the West, but it's only two points ahead of ninth-place Nashville. The Stars avoided a third straight loss Thursday with a 5-0 win over Chicago.
Kari Lehtonen had 23 saves, bouncing back after allowing four goals in a 6-3 loss to San Jose two nights earlier.
"We were really pleased with the way everybody pitched in defensively," coach Marc Crawford said. "You look at key elements in our game where we need to have big performances from our defense, our penalty killing and our goaltender, and we got all of those things."
Jamie Benn extended his point streak to nine games with a goal and an assist. He has eight goals and five assists during that run, including five points in the last two.
Dallas is 2-2-1 on a seven-game homestand, which ends Wednesday against Anaheim. The Stars then play seven of their final nine games on the road.
"From here on out over the next 11 games, every time we win one it'll be the biggest one," Brad Richards told the Stars' official website. "It's good for our locker room because this is a little bit how it feels like when you're in a (playoff) series."
Dallas has lost four straight to Philadelphia.
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