ASK ANYONE IN the locker room if one man is going to make the overall difference in the Flyers' playoff series against the Washington Capitals and the answer is a resounding no.

Team defense is a key.

Team scoring is a key.

Stopping Alex Ovechkin is a key.

Over and over from one player to the next, the answer is always the same. We win as a team and we lose as a team.

Martin Biron has a different opinion.

"My first year in the American League [1998], I was [a practice goalie] with the Buffalo Sabres and we came to [Philadelphia] and we won, we went to Montreal and we won and then lost to Washington.

"We had Dominik Hasek and the first two series, he was unbelievable. He was standing on his head the whole first two rounds. We swept Montreal in four games; it was just unbelievable.

"Then in the third round he let in some goals that some people said were uncharacteristic. We were really riding whatever Dom was doing and Olaf Kolzig, who was playing in Washington at the time, was unbelievable. I saw that their goalie had won them that series where Dom had won us the first two.

"It was the same thing 3 years later. We played Pittsburgh in the second round and Johan Hedberg was in net and we saw him really step it up for them. He really played out of his mind and won that series for them.

"The key is always more emphasis on the goaltender. If we believe it or not, it's always going to be that way and goalies are always going to be at the forefront of the playoffs because it's an important position."

Good thing Biron knows that, because the Flyers' playoff hopes rest on his shoulders, particularly against Washington. The best-of-seven series will open tonight at the Verizon Center.

Stacked together, the Flyers and the Capitals match up very well. Each has a crop of scoring forwards, though Washington does have Ovechkin, a player who can take over a game by himself.

In goal, the Capitals have French-born Cristobal Huet, who has won his last nine games and gone 11-2-0 with a 1.63 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage since being traded to Washington from Montreal on Feb. 26.

And the Flyers have Biron, who is coming into the series off important, back-to-back shutouts and having anchored the Flyers through the final weeks of the regular-season race to clinch a playoff berth.

So both teams have hot goalies, and that, says Biron, can make a difference.

What's certainly different for the quirky, Quebec-born, 30-year-old goalie is that he's starting. It will be the first chance during his 10 seasons in the NHL to start - or even play, for that matter - in a playoff game.

He has been a starter during the regular season, playing as many as 72 games in 2001-02, but the four times the playoffs have come around, Biron was the guy on the bench.

He sat behind Hasek and then he was pushed aside for Ryan Miller, who was the Sabres' future, as they saw things. Through it all, Biron remained upbeat and kept his eye on this one chance.

"I feel like I'm entering the best years of my career and getting to the playoffs," Biron said.

"Other years there were circumstances and I didn't play in the playoffs. I played hard and I battled hard; it just didn't happen. You want to play, yes, but you have to look at the way things have been.

"My first couple of years we went to the playoffs, but it was with [Hasek] there. Then after that we went through a phase in Buffalo for 3 years where we didn't make the playoffs and we had bankruptcy issues and it was tough.

"Two of those years we came close and the year before the lockout we got real, real close and didn't make it, but it was the cycle. Then there was the lockout year and boom, there's a year where I'm thinking this is my coming-out party and they wanted to move toward the future, and the future they thought was going with Ryan [Miller], and that's how things went."

Biron, who played 62 games this season, now feels he's ready for the challenge he has been waiting for all these years.

His teammates, however, do not believe their success can be solely dependent upon Biron.

And they are right to think so. Help the goalie, push the shooters to the outside, clear the crease of second chances, and try somehow to get a handle on Ovechkin while watching the rest of Washington's talented players, and they give Biron a better chance to succeed for them.

"We have to keep the puck away from [Ovechkin]," forward Mike Knuble said. "That's the line you're going to hear the whole series. You know he's a guy that's going to score a couple of goals, but you want to keep it down to a couple. You don't want it to become eight or a dozen in one series because that's where you're going to have a lot of trouble."

Added Mike Richards: "Goal-tending has always been a big part of the playoffs. [Biron] has played extremely well and we're confident in him. We have all the confidence in the world that he's our No. 1 and we like having him back there. But we're also confident that our defense is not going to give them too many opportunities back there and hopefully he's confident that [the forwards] are going to come back and help him out."

And so it will all begin tonight for Biron. His opportunity is here and he's looking to prove a point.

"I feel like I was able to achieve something I had set out to do when I came here to Philly [late last season], to be able to play the majority of the games in the season and get to the playoffs and make the difference in some games," Biron said.

"At times when I was in the playoffs before, I felt like I didn't make that difference, that step toward the playoffs. I was a supporting ingredient, but I didn't make that difference and now I feel like I did that and I feel like there is so much more to go and get. I'm a very unsettled kind of guy. I always feel like there is something more to achieve. That's how I feel now." *