THERE WERE TWO things the Flyers could have done after their second-period disaster.

They could have folded and pulled Antero Niittymaki and just gotten through the night or they could have dialed up something dramatic.

Dramatic was the hard way and folding wouldn't have cost them anything more, with a loss just about guaranteed, facing a four-goal deficit to Carolina.

But coach John Stevens wanted dramatic, if nothing else but to be accountable to the fans. So with the Penguins coming in tomorrow afternoon and a boatload of pride on the line - not to mention the constant fight for division standings - the Flyers stormed onto the ice in the third period and staged a breathtaking comeback that resulted in a 6-5 shootout win before a standing, screaming Wachovia Center crowd.

It was only the second time in franchise history the Flyers have trailed by four or more and come back to win.

Scott Hartnell led the comeback, getting the Flyers on the board with a second-period tally before scoring two third-period goals for a hat trick, and Scottie Upshall and Simon Gagne scored to force overtime.

Niittymaki, who was as awful as the team in front of him in the second, was brilliant in the third, the overtime and the shootout, stopping two Carolina shooters while Gagne and Mike Richards scored to win the game.

"I was really disappointed the way we played the first two periods," Stevens said. "Our role players were providing the energy and the physical play. We were allowing their skill people to hurt us. [Eric] Staal looked like a man possessed.

"We talked between the second and third," he continued. "We had fans that battled through the rain here tonight to come watch our team play and we weren't doing a very good job pleasing them to that point, and I thought the guys came out and responded with a great effort.

"I just asked them to go out and play 20 minutes the right way. I had no idea we could come back from being in that kind of a hole against a team that was playing so well."

But the Flyers did.

With the win, the Flyers are tied with the Penguins for second in the Atlantic Division going into tomorrow's meeting. Pittsburgh beat the Islanders last night, 9-2, but how does that rout measure up against this comeback?

"They're going to be pretty confident," Gagne said. "They're the type of team with a lot of skill. They're going to try to win the game 8-0 if they can.

"For us it's going to be a big game. I think a five-goal comeback is always more exciting than an [9-2] win, that's for sure. It's a great feeling. When you win [9-2] you're not playing hard . . . it's a lot bigger feeling to come back like we did tonight."

There are a lot of factors that go into a win like last night's; the first is a quick goal, like the one Hartnell got, and the second is a goalie who is given a second chance and left in the game.

Niittymaki looked so dejected, and since he plays in so few games, Stevens decided to stick with him.

"I wanted to stay in," Niittymaki said. "I'm not going to say I knew we were going to come back. It's probably one where a lot of guys think it's over. But there was 20 minutes left . . . and I wanted to make something out of the game.

"I don't play every night, so I try to play as much as I can and build something. I tried to be ready in the third period and see what happens."

A lot did.

"We scored a pretty quick goal at the beginning of the third and everybody kind of got everything going on and you just get pretty excited about it," the goalie said.

"You score three goals, we're at home, with a pretty good offense, so you just try to make a couple of saves, and when I went to the shootout I felt pretty confident."

Confident enough to keep the Flyers in the game when Carolina got a golden opportunity, a power play for too many men and only 1:40 left to play in the overtime.

It was a heart-stopping game filled with big moments and peppered by some poor officiating that stirred fans to chant throughout the game, "Ref, you [stink]."

Fans were particularly angered when defenseman Andrew Alberts was checked headfirst into the boards by Carolina's Scott Walker. Alberts got up and went after Walker. That fight was broken up, but winger Arron Asham then fought Walker.

When the dust settled, Alberts was given a double minor for roughing, and Asham was called for fighting and instigating and received a game misconduct.

Walker was called for fighting but got nothing for the hit that started it all, and Carolina went on a five-on-three advantage. Joni Pitkanen blasted in Carolina's fourth goal during the two-man advantage. Staal followed with the Hurricanes' fifth goal, his second of the night, and the game seemed lost for the Flyers.

But Hartnell started the third period with a shorthanded goal, following that with his hat-trick tally to make it 5-3.

Upshall put the game within reach at 5-4 with about 5 minutes left in regulation, getting to a rebound in front and then having the patience to wait until Carolina goalie Michael Leighton put himself out of position.

Gagne topped the comeback, tying the game just at the end of a Flyers power play at 18:16. Mike Knuble passed to Gagne at the net, he shot, then got the rebound and put it in, making the score 5-5.

"[Stevens] came in and basically said we were playing like a bunch of pansies. We didn't get the team game in motion for the first 40 minutes and . . . we were basically playing losing hockey," Hartnell said. "We had a couple of great goals late and we were able to get the extra point in the shootout. We were fired up there in that third period and it obviously showed." *