PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Robert Esche provided a timely boost for a team in desperate need of defense.
Esche made 24 saves for his third shutout this season, leading the Philadelphia Flyers to a 3-0 victory over the New York Rangers on Saturday.
Playing without three top defensemen, who are injured, the Flyers relied heavily on the goaltender they expect to be in net when the postseason begins.
``His game is right on the mark right now,'' Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said. ``For him personally, he'd probably like the playoffs to start tomorrow. But for us, if they started a month from now, that would be great.''
Claude Lapointe and Simon Gagne scored first-period goals for the Flyers, who defeated the Rangers for the fifth time this season and moved within one point of Tampa Bay for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Philadelphia also extended its Atlantic-Division lead to six points over New Jersey, which played at Montreal later Saturday.
``Our goal is to win the division first,'' Flyers right wing Mark Recchi said. ``If there's an opportunity to be first in the conference, we learned from last year that you have to try to get the highest seed you can.''
Esche bounced back from one of his worst outings of the season _ three goals allowed on 14 shots in Thursday's home loss to Toronto _ to record his eighth career shutout and first in eight starts since missing almost all of February with a sprained knee.
``The other night, I thought I made bigger saves than I did in today's game,'' Esche said. ``Today, I didn't give up any goals, but that doesn't necessarily mean I played well. I think there's some things I have to work on.''
The Rangers, winless in five games (0-4-0-1), were eliminated from playoff contention for the seventh straight season.
Inside New York's quiet locker room after the loss, captain Mark Messier reflected on what has been another disappointing season for a team that was no higher than seventh in the East all season.
``When you play 82 games to get to the playoffs, it's disappointing for the guys who have been around for a while,'' Messier said. ``But you still have a responsibility every time you go out on the ice to play hard and the best you can.''
Lapointe was whistled for hooking 1:55 in. After the Flyers killed the penalty, Lapointe got the rebound off a shot by Patrick Sharp and tapped the puck past goalie Jamie McLennan for the game's first goal.
The Flyers made it 2-0 at 13:19 of the first period when Alexei Zhamnov flipped a pass over the stick of Rangers defenseman Fedor Tyutin to Tony Amonte. Amonte gloved the puck and passed across the crease to Gagne, who was waiting at the right post.
Gagne redirected the pass with his skate, but then grazed the top of the puck with his stick as it crossed the goal line for his 22nd goal and third in four games.
The Rangers put immediate pressure on Philadelphia to start the second. Esche stopped three shots from point-blank range in the opening 2:30 of the period and Jan Hlavac hit the right post minutes later.
Esche made a glove save on Jaromir Jagr's wrist shot 44 seconds into the third to preserve the lead.
Mattias Timander added an empty-net, short-handed goal _ his first goal with the Flyers _ with 44.4 seconds left.
New York went 0-for-5 on the power play and has not scored in 14 opportunities. The Flyers, who led the NHL in power-play efficiency, were also 0-for-5 and are 1-for-13 in their last two games.
``With the way our power play sets up, sometimes we aren't going to get goals,'' Hitchcock said. ``I'm not concerned, though.''