It was like waving a carrot in front of a donkey. If the Philadelphia Flyers finish first in the Patrick Division, they most likely will meet the New York Rangers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

As the Flyers were reminded tonight, such a matchup provides an excellent chance for a three-game sweep and a few days' rest. It was no contest this time, as the Flyers outshot New York by 20-4 over the first 22 minutes, built a 4-1 lead and cruised to a 5-2 victory.

The Flyers' fifth straight success boosted their Patrick Division lead to four points over Washington. Each team has 12 games left and Philadelphia's schedule includes three more meetings with the Rangers.

Although the Flyers are missing 51-goal scorer Tim Kerr, who suffered a sprained knee Friday at Capital Centre, there was no evidence that Philadelphia was affected by either his absence or the letdown one might expect after such an intense confrontation as the two games with Washington. The Flyers rolled on with an 11-4 triumph over Pittsburgh Sunday and there was no letup tonight until the issue was decided.

"There always can be concern after an emotional series like the one with Washington, but our team responded well the next game against Pittsburgh and we continued to play well tonight," said Flyer Coach Mike Keenan. "We're playing very consistently and we're playing with a lot of confidence."

Keenan hid any evidence of drooling over the prospect of facing the Rangers in the playoffs, but asked if the Flyers' victory tonight and overall 4-0 mark over New York would be significant in a possible matchup, he said, "Very significant. It's critical that we key in on that opponent and be effective in their building.

"But there are too many points on the board now to think about the playoffs. Our race with Washington is still unsettled, although this game certainly helps our cause."

Despite being forced to kill an early penalty, the Flyers grabbed a 2-0 lead in the first eight minutes, as the Rangers' defense, weakened by the absence of captain Barry Beck, left Peter Zezel and Todd Bergen unguarded in front, where they converted teammates' passes.

Tomas Sandstrom, who scored both Ranger goals, halved the deficit on New York's second shot, but before the period ended Ilkka Sinisalo netted a power play goal on a rebound of a shot by Thomas Eriksson. That score came shortly after referee Denis Morel washed out an apparent Flyer goal because Brian Propp directed a rebound past John Vanbiesbrouck with his skate.

Propp's 38th goal, on a breakaway two minutes into the second period, made it 4-1. Then the Flyers lost some momentum and a lucky bounce off the rear boards enabled Sandstrom to score again.

Philadelphia goalie Pelle Lindbergh, winning for a league-high 31st time, stopped a breakaway by Steve Patrick and two other Ranger shots rattled posts behind him before Len Hachborn deflected a Rick Tocchet shot while lying on the ice to complete the scoring.

The Flyers and the crowd of 17,409 made it a difficult night for New York General Manager Craig Patrick, who is 7-14-2 since replacing Herb Brooks behind the bench.

After the first period, an announcement concerning the sale of playoff tickets was greeted with boos and laughter. Midway through the third period, there were chants of "Let's go home"; long before the finish, most of the 17,409 did just that.

Asked if he was embarrassed by the game and the crowd, Patrick replied, "I haven't heard the fans, but I'm certainly not too pleased the way things have been the last couple of games. We can't get 60 minutes. I know we're capable of it, but Monday night (in a 4-3 loss to Chicago) we played 40 minutes and tonight we played 40 minutes.

"What were the shots in the first period, 18-4? They were 19-9 in the third period Monday. That tells you it's more than just a few players."