The players first off the ice from a pregame skate are almost always going to be in the lineup that night.

But Danny Briere was not ready for that.

With the Buffalo Sabres in town yesterday, Briere said he wanted to get off the ice first and into the locker room before he started seeing who was in the building.

It was bad enough not being in the lineup, he said, but worse because the opponent was his old team.

"That's why I'm getting off the ice, so I don't have to stick around. I think it's probably going to hit me more when I get to the game, when I see the team on the ice who we're playing against. It would have been fun to be out there," he said.

While that was not the case last night, Briere is getting very close to what should effectively be the start of his season. Two abdominal surgeries and three groin tears have kept the Flyers center from playing for the last 12 weeks and have limited him to just nine games.

He has made two comeback attempts but both have ended with major setbacks.

But this time Briere is feeling confident that when he does return, most likely next Wednesday at home against Los Angeles, he will be back for the rest of the season.

Since he started practicing with the Flyers last week, each day he has gotten stronger and the soreness he experiences feels like the right kind of soreness.

Unlike his last comeback attempt, which was actually with the Phantoms instead of the Flyers, he says he knows he can play and won't be seeking another conditioning stint in the AHL.

"I think the situation is a little different this time," Briere said earlier this week.

"When I went back before, I just didn't know if I was strong enough to play. Where this time as it's getting closer and closer I feel that I'll be ready to play and help out here.

"It won't be a question of figuring out if I can play or need more time off. I think when I'm ready to go, I'll be ready to go for the rest of the season."

Yesterday, Briere said he was getting excited as the days ticked toward his return.

"We're shooting for next week; we've already ruled out this weekend," he said.

"The first few weeks you're counting the other way, surgery happened 1 week, 2 weeks ago, now I'm counting the other way. I'm about a week away now, about 5 days away. The counting is reversed now and I'm excited that I'm seeing that in the next few games I'll be out there.

"It's a lot more fun than when you are rehabbing without practicing and you're away from the team." *