Derian Hatcher was there, and skating.

So was Daniel Briere, for a while, anyway.

But the big question for the Flyers yesterday as they went through their first practice in preparation for the start of their playoff series with the Washington Capitals was, where is defenseman Jason Smith?

The Flyers captain was not at practice and not in the Skate Zone when practice ended.

Smith, who did not play Sunday in the regular-season finale, has what the team will describe only as an "upper-body injury" and is day-to-day, according to general manager Paul Holmgren.

But there is ongoing speculation that Smith has a shoulder injury that could threaten his availability to play in the series opener on Friday. Smith had a right shoulder injury earlier this season and would be seen wearing ice packs after most games and practices.

Coach John Stevens said Smith was just being given time to heal.

"He's got an upper-body injury and we're just giving him an extra day to rest,'' Stevens said. "Obviously, he's a key guy for us, he's a leader on our team, he has a great impact with his presence and he gets the team ready to play.''

When pressed about the rumors that Smith needs more than just off days to rest, Stevens said, "It's all just speculation right now and just like [Briere skating only a portion of practice], that was the plan. I don't want to look too far ahead with [Briere] or anybody else.

"I think the work is important, but so is the rest. We'll see how they respond to rest and we'll see in the morning. [Flyers trainer Jim McCrossin] and I will meet in the morning and see who's a player for practice and who is not."

Not having the captain on the ice against Washington would mean missing the impact of a defenseman who has played in big playoff games.

Meanwhile, Hatcher, an experienced playoff leader who is expected to return from a broken tibia at some point in the playoffs, said he does not expect to be able to play Friday and that the possible absence of Smith will not force his hand.

"It's obvious that something is bugging [Smith] and they're being pretty quiet about it," Hatcher said. "I said it before - if I can't be a decent player, I'm not going out there. The games are too important right now."

Would Smith's absence change his timeline?

"If I was on the edge, maybe yeah, but if I'm not to that point, no," he said.

Hatcher was on the ice for the entire practice but said afterward that he doesn't feel stable on his right leg yet.

"I didn't feel all that good out there today," Hatcher said. "But that's the process. There is really no plan right now. I wish I knew, but we'll just have to see how it comes along.

"I would lean toward not playing Friday. But things change fast. I don't know what to expect out of this, it could feel way better [today].''

As for Briere and his recovery from a right knee sprain, the center skated half the practice wearing a non-contact jersey, but said his early departure was planned.

"I was on the ice for just over a half-hour and I'm feeling better and better every day, which is very positive," Briere said. "The good thing is we still have 3 more days to go before the first game, so I'm confident.''

Briere said he eventually will remove the no-contact shirt and test his knee in contact drills.

"That will come," he said. "Every day we will take a step further. But I'll be in right from the get-go." *