DERIAN HATCHER has arguably been the Flyers' best defenseman in the playoffs. If not, then Kimmo Timonen has. So far in this series with Montreal, we have seen a sucker punch with intent to injure on Timonen go unpunished, and in last night's harrowing 3-2 Flyers victory, we watched Hatcher get thrown out of the third period of a playoff game for a boarding penalty that occurred almost simultaneously with Tomas Plekanec's blatant attempt to injure the Flyers' R.J. Umberger by taking out his knees away from the puck.

Oh, yes, there was that phantom call on Mike Richards that led to the Canadiens' overtime win in Game 1, and that Montreal goal in the same game that seemed to be scored by a high stick.

And all that before the Canadiens trailed in this series.

Can't wait to see what's in store for tomorrow night.

This series is just three games old, and already there is way too much circumstantial evidence to support the perennial theorem embraced in the lower 48 at this time of year.

Namely, that Canada looks out for its own.

It's not just the yahoos in the upper levels who believe this, or the bias of announcers paid by the club. Chris Therien, Canadian-born, spoke on Comcast SportsNets's "Daily News Live" yesterday of strange calls made when the Flyers played the Maple Leafs in the playoffs, expressed the belief - nay, conviction - that he and his team felt they were playing Canada's team then.

Sunday, after Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau suggested Timonen deserved his cheap shot for celebrating a clinching goal in Game 2, Flyers coach John Stevens hinted not so subtly that such a play, and such a statement, would not be celebrated if uttered by him, or made by one of his players - say, Steve Downie. It sounded as if he, too, believed in this Canada's-team concept, but after surviving last night's hairy third period, he kept his lip as stiff as a puck.

"Do you feel you're going up against Canada's team?" he was asked.

"That's why you guys get paid the big bucks," he said with a smile. "We're trying to win a game against the Montreal Canadiens, and we have to play better from a discipline standpoint. The bulk of their opportunities came on the power play."

Their power play took up nearly 20 percent of the game. Stevens did let his hair down a bit when discussing the unfair treatment of Downie, who, if he wasn't skating toward the penalty box, was sitting in it. Downie not only had to sit through his three penalties, but he was chosen to sit out the evicted Hatcher's as well.

They should let him bring some magazines next game.

Downie is no angel, but it doesn't seem right that he can get sent off for trying to dig a puck out of goalie Carey Price's skate (Price fell), yet be subjected to a pummeling at the side of Montreal net while the referee watches indifferently on the side.

Maybe this kind of treatment is what has made him so angry in the first place.

Anyway, the bitter irony of last night's too-close-for-comfort Flyers victory is that Hatcher gave Francis Bouillon a boo-boo, but left him in good enough shape to take a crosscheck to the back after the whistle blew. Umberger needed help to get off the ice, although he, too, was able to play the remainder of the game.

Hatcher was not. And that made those 10 long minutes after the Canadiens scored two power-play goals excruciatingly long, and seemingly unfair. Was it a 5-minute major? That in itself was worthy of debate. But dispatching him for the game took away a guy with one of playoff's best plus-minuses, a guy who has been integral to Martin Biron's playoff success.

Without that, you might be looking at tomorrow's game as a fight for survival, and not an opportunity to put both thumbs on the throat of an entire, desperate country. Without that, Ed Snider might have already found his way to the referee's room by now.

So what about this conspiracy theory, Marty?

"No, I don't think we're up against Canada's team," he said. "I'm sure that because they're the last Canadian team standing, a lot of people in Canada are rooting for them. But I don't think we're looking at it as the league and Toronto and all that. Because it's really not.

"We're going to face adversity in a lot of different forms. One thing I learned watching a lot of playoff hockey is it's not always going to be calls going your way." *

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