When the Flyers head off on their post-Christmas road trip, there is a very good chance they will have both of their injured defensemen back and on the plane.

Randy Jones and Ryan Parent - both out since training camp recovering from surgery, Jones a hip repair and Parent a shoulder - were back practicing with the Flyers yesterday and moving toward December return dates.

Both are still working under restricted status, but they are getting closer to full participation. Both have moved back into their stalls in the practice facility locker room.

Jones is hoping to play before Christmas and the plan for Parent is for him to play Dec. 26 in Chicago.

"It was good to get back with the team," said Parent. "There are things I can't do and I don't want to put myself in a vulnerable position and hurt the repair or anything like that.

"We're still taking it step by step and doing everything by the books to make sure it heals properly. Our goal is set for the 26th so I'd say I'm about halfway there."

Jones has said he expects to be back sooner and hopes to possibly play sometime in the middle of December.

"The surgery is behind me and the worst part of the rehab is over with and it's good to be back with the team now," Jones said.

What happens when the two return has yet to be determined, but it's a good bet that Lasse Kukkonen will be waived and sent to the Phantoms, where he will be a depth player.

Jones said he knows he has to work his way back after missing the first quarter of the season.

"You have to earn it," he said. "Just because you played here before and you've been out for 2 months; it's not going to be just given to you.

"No. You have to play the players that are playing the best. I've got to come in here and I have a big job to do to make sure I'm back in game shape, for one, and really help the team win."

In the meantime, Danny Briere, out with a groin strain, continues to skate with the injured players. He traveled with the team to Carolina for tonight's game against the Hurricanes but isn't sure when he will play again.

"I was expecting to play last Friday against Buffalo. That was the goal, and I was far from being ready. I don't want to get excited too quick, but I'm going to travel with the team and practice with them [today] and see how it feels for the weekend," he said.

"The last 2 days I've seen a big improvement and I'm feeling more positive about it."

Snap shots

Between today and Dec. 11 the Flyers will play Carolina four times. It seems a little out of whack given the length of the season, and according to coach

John Stevens

it gives the games more of a playoff-series feel.

"They're going to be a tough opponent to play, the same team that many times," Stevens said. "It's almost a little bit like the playoffs where you play the same team and your pre-scout and review is all kind of the same thing.

"They're a dangerous team, they play an uptempo game, and it's a team in the Eastern Conference. We'll have an opportunity to help ourselves. These are important games."

Stevens said Antero Niittymaki will start tonight and Marty Biron will play Friday when Carolina comes to the Wachovia Center. *