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Biron needs to maintain torrid pace

It is not late in the hockey season, not desperately late as it will become, but it is no longer early, either.

It is not late in the hockey season, not desperately late as it will become, but it is no longer early, either.

The Flyers have gone about their business pretty well so far. They will be the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference as they take the ice this evening against the Buffalo Sabres at the Wachovia Center, and their primary task this season, the rebuilding of the defensive lines, has been a success.

The team has plenty of offensive talent, too, and will have more if Danny Briere can return to full health, but the defensive end of the rink is what revs the engine for the Flyers.

Now they just need to identify the goaltender capable of driving them where they want to go.

Yes, that small matter.

Martin Biron, who led the team into the conference-championship round last season, and Antero Niittymaki have shared things recently. That would include the flu, which laid out Biron for a time and kept Niittymaki off the ice more recently.

In between illnesses, and sometimes during them, the two goalies have been alternately encouraging and disappointing. Biron has been more disappointing, if only because the organization felt he had proved himself as a championship-caliber goalie in the playoffs. To have merely an average season now, with goals-against and save-percentage stats that are closer to the bottom than to the top of the league, has to make general manager Paul Holmgren wonder.

The NHL trading deadline is less than two weeks away, and there is speculation that Holmgren has weighed going after a new goaltender. As recently as Saturday, he told reporters he wouldn't rule out a move for someone from a rumored list that includes Nikolai Khabibulin of Chicago, Niklas Backstrom of Minnesota, and Manny Fernandez of Boston.

And then a funny thing happened Saturday, and it repeated itself Sunday. Biron began to play again.

As the Flyers beat the Islanders and Rangers on the road, Biron made 73 saves and gave up a total of three goals. In his previous five starts, Biron had been winless and allowed just a shade under four goals per game. When he beat the Isles, it was his first win since Jan. 10.

It would be nice for the Flyers if Biron, who will start tonight, could extend that hot streak - oh, for four more months or so.

There are 27 games left in the regular season, and it is time for the playoff goalie to announce himself. Last season, Biron played 20 of the final 23 games, for instance, as he zoomed toward the postseason.

"I looked at the games where I performed best, and those were the high-intensity, high-emotion games," Biron said after practice yesterday. "I'm trying to bring that up now rather than wait until the end of the year. You've got to kick yourself in the rear and say, 'Let's go.' I decided to step on the pedal for Saturday and kept it going for Sunday, and it worked out. That's got to be the attitude."

Coach John Stevens says the right things about having confidence in both goalies, but a rejuvenated Biron would make his ultimate decision a lot easier.

"This is the time of the year when your goalie needs to be one of your best players, if not your best player, every night," Stevens said. "Marty's got some fire in his game right now. He's a good goalie, and when you combine that with making saves on effort, he can get to the level he was last year, and we saw that over the weekend."

Biron's turnaround came just two days after the crash of a commuter plane in Clarence, N.Y., the Buffalo-area town where Biron maintains his off-season home. Fifty people died. Many of his wife's relatives live in the vicinity of Clarence, and a large portion of the roster of the Sabres - Biron's teammates during his 11 years in that organization - lives in Clarence.

"When I was in Buffalo, my wife would fly to New York with her sister or a girlfriend for the day or a couple days, and that's the plane that commutes you back and forth," Biron said. "Buffalo is a small town, and when something like that hits one person, it hits everybody. I've talked to my family there and my friends, and everyone knew somebody who was on the plane, or somebody who lived right there where it crashed. It shakes everybody."

There is no comparing loss of life with the loss of hockey games, but something like that can impart a clarity on those who find themselves shaken. Biron called it a reminder of life's "fragility," and perhaps that's as thinly as coincidence can be stretched.

Whatever the case, it is ironic that Buffalo skates into Philadelphia tonight, and Martin Biron will try to savor and expand his small, recent window of success before it closes again - or before management shuts it for him.

"I'm a passive guy, easygoing," Biron said. "I get in the net and I'm not diving left and right. I don't make spectacular saves that often. But I have that boiled-up energy inside, even if it looks calm and cool. You've got to have that fire. It is like the duck. Everything looks nice, but underneath everything is like a duck, you know?"

We know. We also know it is mid-February, neither very early nor very late, but the time for serious hockey teams to either find their goaltender or start paddling.