BUFFALO - There was probably not much that Daniel Briere could have said about his return to Buffalo that would help with tonight's game.

He could have said it was not what he expected, to be booed in a place where he was a centerpiece for so many years, or to be hit and speared the way he was.

But with a game on the line at the Wachovia Center tonight, one that would be the difference between going into the holiday break on a six-game skid or with hope for the coming year, the high road seemed best.

So that's what he did.

"It was what I expected," Briere said after last night's 3-2 loss to the Sabres. "I'm disappointed at the way we lost the game more than anything. For everything else, it was a fun day, it was a fun game, apart from the way we found to lose the game again."

With the game tied at 2-2, Jochen Hecht scored the winning goal at 18:09 of the third period during a scramble in front and sent the Flyers home hauling their fifth straight loss.

It has been a tough stretch for a team that started the season near or at the top of both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, only to see it slip away.

"We're a young team," Briere said. "We're still in the stages where we're trying to learn how to stay patient, how to find ways to win those games. We haven't been very good at the tight games lately.

"I thought tonight we were on the path, we did a great job. We got a power-play goal, we were still in control, still doing a good job and then just for a couple of seconds a lack of focus and the puck was in the back of the net."

The Flyers also did not escape the game uninjured. Randy Jones left with a sprained right knee and did not return. He will be re-evaluated today.

Even before the game, Briere said he didn't know what the response would be from the fans who had cheered him on for the past four seasons.

What he got were boos, every time he touched the puck, and an extra whack or two from his former teammates. Jaroslav Spacek got him along the boards and Brian Campbell appeared to spear him late in the game.

Briere took the high road there as well, saying he put himself in a bad position with Spacek, who also nailed Scottie Upshall in the corner with what should have been called a head shot.

"[Campbell] got me in the ribs and he came over after the game and let me know that that was not what he meant to do, it was accidental. Knowing him, he's a class act. He wasn't trying to hurt me. I'll take his apologies."

The score at the end of the first period should have been at least one more than the 1-0 it was. Martin Biron was able to stop the first floater from getting behind him, but the second one, a shot from Drew Stafford, tumbled in the air and fell into the net, just over the line.

The game picked up for the Flyers in the second period when, during a four-on-four, Scott Hartnell sprung a pass to Jeff Carter that split the defense and sent the Flyers' center in alone to beat Ryan Miller to tie the game.

Then Joffrey Lupul gave the Flyers the lead, converting on a deflected puck in front and hitting the top corner of the net.

Buffalo had a few gift power plays, one that was called from the other end of the rink that should have been a Buffalo dive.

The boos kept coming for Briere, and things actually got nasty when Spacek laid him out along the boards.

Alex Kotalik tied the game at 2-2 early in the third period on a power-play blast from the point that blew past Biron at 4:30.

Spacek then drew an interference call after nailing Upshall high in the corner. The Flyers couldn't do anything with the power play, but the intensity of the game more than doubled.

Then Hecht ended the battle.

"It's frustrating," said Mike Richards, who had to be separated from Spacek behind the Flyers' net after the final whistle. "It's never fun to lose. Especially when you're so close. We've got to find ways to win these games that are 2-2, or 2-1 going into the third period.

"[Today] is a huge game, no doubt about it, especially the way it ended there . . . It's going to be heated [tonight]."

Stevens' deal finalized

The long-awaited contract extension for coach John Stevens was finally announced yesterday. Stevens was given a 1-year deal worth $650,000. He is making $600,000 this season.

The deal had been in the works since the beginning of the season but hit some snags not related to the team's performance, and was finally finished.

"It's really no different for me. It's something we've talked about since the beginning of the year," he said. [General manager Paul Holmgren] has been dealing with a lot of other issues, trying to get [forward Mike Richards] signed and just dealing with the day-to-day operation of the team. It's exciting for me to be able to continue on with this group."

Stevens was relieved to have the contract done and out of the way, because he did not like having to continually answer questions about it.

"It was uncomfortable for me because just because I want to focus on the team," he said "I never like any conversation about me. I think it's distracting for the job at hand. I've been paid to coach this year and obviously because the contract is in its last year it's an issue, but not for me. I fully intended to focus on this year, coach this year and plan on working here much longer after this year." *