If there were ever a time when the Flyers needed to get away for a few days, this was it.

With just three games left in the year and a month coming that could make or break their playoff chances, the Flyers regrouped yesterday, feeling refreshed after an unusual 3-day holiday break.

"I'm hoping that this break was the perfect thing to happen for us right now where we can take a step back and energize," said Daniel Briere. "I still love our team. I think we're a playoff team."

That was a given just a few weeks ago, when a fast start vaulted the Flyers to the top of the Atlantic Division and as high as second in the Eastern Conference.

But that was before Oct. 24-25, when the Flyers lost back-to-back games at Florida and Tampa Bay, then went on a win-one, lose-one stretch that lasted weeks before ending in the current six-game slide in which they plummeted to last in the division and 13th in the conference.

After the home shootout loss to Buffalo on Saturday, the Flyers took a scheduled 3-day break, then went back to work yesterday to prepare to face the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight for the first post-Christmas game at home in December in many years.

After that, the Flyers return to Tampa Bay and Florida for another set of back-to-backs, and then face a month when they will play conference opponents 12 times in 13 games, including six against division rivals.

A bad month could kill them where a good month would put them back in contention.

However, this is not the same hopeless situation as last year, where they were out of the playoffs in the opinion of anyone watching the team at the start of the New Year.

This season has a revamped lineup with speed, veteran leadership, better goaltending, and nine new, capable faces, including Briere, who has not lost hope.

"I know we've been on a little slide right now and we've been struggling with consistency the last couple of months," he said. "I look at our lineup and I still love the build, the look of our team, how much speed we have, how physical we are."

One solid reason for hope is that while they are buried in the standings, it is not by a landslide of points. The Eastern Conference, the entire league in fact, is separated by only a handful of points, save for Ottawa and Detroit, which have distanced themselves from the pack.

The Flyers are only out of a playoff position by two points and trail Atlantic Division-leading New Jersey by seven; a hot month and that all could change.

"We know where we are at," said Derian Hatcher, "and we're concerned. But we also know that if we go out and have a good week, we're right back there. We have a couple of games in hand on a lot of those teams, and if we win those we're right back up.

"I don't think I've ever seen it where it's been so tight. It's really kind of amazing. We are concerned, but we know we can get better and be right where we want to be.

"We have to win [today]. We're just getting back from the break and we haven't talked about it yet, but we have to look at the game [today] as a must-win."

For coach John Stevens, that means better defense. The Flyers are not having trouble scoring; holding onto leads has been killing them, especially lately.

"Our commitment to defense early on was what really made the difference for us," Stevens said. "We talked to the team today, broke down our last 10 games, goals-against I believe has been 34, the penalty kill has given up too many goals of late and our five-on-five play is not where we want it to be.

"Our sense of urgency is what's not making it happen. We're not blocking as many shots and to me that's a sign of urgency. Plays at our net is a sign of urgency. I think our whole focus and intensity has to pick up and that will make every part of our game better around it." *