SCOTT HARTNELL waddled into the Flyers dressing room with a limp, a scowl on his face and a bag of ice taped under his shorts.

In the third period of yesterday's gloriously physical game, Hartnell was taken down on a partial breakaway and his face smacked off the post so hard it's a miracle he wasn't covered in blood.

Somehow, someway, Hartnell kept all of his teeth intact.

"Desperation," Hartnell described. "Guys were laying their bodies on the line, taking hits to make plays. It was a physical game. I think we left everything on the ice."

Playing against the Bruins, the team with two trips to the Stanley Cup finals in the last 3 years, is bruising. Hartnell called them "without a doubt" the toughest team to play in the NHL. The Flyers know: Their 6-1 clubbing back on Jan. 25 is proof.

There were 73 faceoffs between the Flyers and visiting Bruins yesterday and every one was like a border skirmish, a territorial and tactical battle in the overall war.

"You line up and it's like you've got three guys ramming their heads together," Wayne Simmonds explained. "To play against Boston, you've got to be a physical team. If not, they're probably going to run all over you. They've got a lot of big boys on their team. They play structurally well and they like to take the body."

The two teams combined for 87 hits, far and away the Flyers' largest combined total this season. Michael Raffl noted: "Against that team, you hit and you get hit. I'm going to feel it tomorrow."

Jarome Iginla, the Bruins' leading scorer and recipient of a forehead welt from a first-period fight with Zac Rinaldo, said: "Intensity, the atmosphere, the physical style . . . it's kind of the way we like it."

When Tuukka Rask stopped the last of the 52 shots the Flyers fired in regulation, and the carnage was counted, Bloody Sunday ended in - of all things - a skills competition.

In a strange way, the shootout was the perfect marriage of the brain and brawn displayed - a merciful ending for Game No. 74 of the season between two teams who both have much bigger things to play for in April.

Naturally, the Flyers fell to the Bruins in that shootout and skated off the ice with the sulk of a 4-3 loss. On this day, though, it didn't exactly feel like one.

Not after January's drubbing. Not after becoming just the third team to rip a point off Boston in the last 16 games. And certainly not after trailing by a goal with under 30 seconds to play in regulation.

"I think this is a good proving point," said Steve Mason, who stopped 27 of 30 shots and a string of three straight in the shootout. "I think the guys worked extremely hard. Right now, they're the No. 1 team in the league and the guys were going toe-to-toe with them."

Boston went 15-1-1 in the month of March. Yesterday was the Bruins' ninth consecutive road win, a new record for the 90-year-old franchise.

Yet, for as good as the Bruins were this month, no team in the NHL faced stiffer competition than the Flyers. They were no worse for wear, reeling off wins against St. Louis, Chicago, Dallas, two each against Pittsburgh and Washington.

"They really pushed us," Bruins defenseman Andrej Meszaros said of his former team. "They really worked hard. You can see they are a desperate team trying to make the playoffs."

There were lapses, yes. The Flyers squandered a golden, two-man advantage early in the third period. They are just 2-for-14 in those situations this year, 23rd in the NHL, and lagging behind non-playoff teams like Nashville (5-for-9), New Jersey (4-for-9) and Ottawa (4-for-5).

But suddenly red-hot, fourth-line center Vincent Lecavalier scored twice, including the game-tying goal with 25.7 seconds left to cap off a furious, third-period push. The Flyers then outshot Boston, 8-1, in overtime to make their tally a lopsided, season-best 52-30.

"They had an attitude today that they were going to show themselves today and I thought that they did," coach Craig Berube said. "I know the outcome wasn't what we wanted, but we attacked. We competed hard. It's playoff hockey."

The net result was one measly point in the standings. With two games still in-hand on the Rangers, that isn't entirely insignificant - even if it felt like more.

"We battled hard to get that point," Hartnell said. "You never know, that point could be the difference between home-ice [advantage]. If we keep playing that way in the playoffs, we'll be all right."

Slap shots

Boston is one of just three teams (Carolina, Tampa Bay) the Flyers have not beaten at least once this season. They still have one more crack at all three . . . The Flyers are now 3-6 in the shootouts this season . . . The Flyers' 52 shots were their most in a home game since Jan. 28, 1997, against Phoenix (55) . . . Andrej Meszaros scored against the Flyers in his first game against them since being traded on March 3. He now has two goals and three assists in nine games for Boston . . . Rare postgame locker room visitor: John LeClair.

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