Briere returning; Niittymaki ill

     Center Danny Briere, who has missed about seven weeks with a groin injury, went through today's brisk practice without any problems and seems ready to return to the lineup Wednesday against the visiting Atlanta Thrashers.

    Barring a major setback, Briere should play Wednesday and make his first NHL appearance since Dec. 2.

     The Flyers' offense, which has been so dynamic for most of the season, has struggled lately and Briere should give the club a pick-me-up. The Flyers have averaged just two goals in their last seven games and opponents are keying on stopping the Mike Richards and Jeff Carter lines.

    Having Briere on the third line will make it much much more difficult on opponents.

    That said, give the Flyers credit for compiling a 22-8-6 record without Briere; they are 2-4-3 with him.

    To add Briere and his $6.5 million salary, the Flyers will have to make a handful of moves. They started the process by placing Josh Gratton and Jon Kalinski on the long-term injured list. Rookie defenseman Luca Sbisa seems headed back to juniors (for the time being) and it wouldn't be surprising if another player (Darroll Powe? Claude Giroux?) was sent to the AHL Phantoms.

    Would that be enough to get the team under the $56.7 million cap. Perhaps. But GM Paul Holmgen was unusually mum when discussing cap options today.

    In another development, goalie Antero Niittymaki missed practice because of the flu. If healhty, Niittymaki figures to face Atlanta Wednesday because he is 11-0 lifetime against the Thrashers, including a 7-0 win earlier this season.

    Wednesday will be the Flyers' final game before the all-star break. They are having a season that is strikingly similar to last year's. The Flyers (24-12-9) have 57 points after 45 games; they had 55 points (25-15-5) after 45 games last season. In both seasons, the Flyers have lost one of their best offensive players for long stretches _ last year, it was Simon Gagne, this season, Briere.

    This year's team seems in a better position, however, because Jeff Carter and Mike Richards have emerged as elite players.

   The Flyers enter Monday night tied with the Devils for second place in the Atlantic _ one point behind the Rangers, who had played two more games than both Philadelphia and New Jersey.

   Like last year, the Flyers also have exceled on the power play. They are No. 1 in the NHL (27 percent success rate) after finishing No. 2 last season.

_ Sam Carchidi