BY THE TIME they arrived in Philadelphia, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards were already connected by fate.

They didn't grow up anywhere near each other. Carter's home is an hour from Toronto in London, Ontario. Richards lives 20 hours by car from London, in Kenora, Ontario.

Carter was a high-flying player, known for skating and scoring goals. Richards was a plugger who worked harder than most and surprised his parents and himself when he was drafted into juniors.

But they were joined by the sport - first as competitors in the Ontario Hockey League, Carter for Sault Ste. Marie, Richards for Kitchener. Then, as teammates on two Canadian world junior teams, winning silver and gold. Then, as 2003 first-round Flyers draft picks. Carter went 11th overall. Richards was 24th. Both are 24 years old.

When they arrived together it was suggested they would become the core of whatever team the Flyers morphed into when they were older, more experienced players.

Their former coach, Ken Hitchcock, who had them when they were kids, once said in casual conversation that they were going to be "the face of the franchise."

Arguably, that time is now. And it starts tonight, when the Flyers open the playoffs in a best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal against Pittsburgh.

With a full season as team leaders behind them, what happens in these playoffs will depend largely on Richards and Carter. Richards is the captain, their top two-way forward, and Carter is the leading goal-scorer who started to come on last season and blossomed into an NHL star this season.

"You look at the work these two guys have done this year and this is the team that they led the whole year," goalie Marty Biron said. "You can point fingers at a lot of guys and how they have been leaders on the ice and in the locker room, but there's no two bigger leaders than Richards and Carter on this team.

"The emotion, the drive, the play that they put on the ice. No. 1, they're centermen and they lead two different lines and their play usually dictates the way their line is going. They play power play, they kill penalties, they play every aspect of the game.

"This locker room has seen a lot of great things from them and when you see a lot of great things from them everybody goes. It's definitely, the way we're going is the way these guys are going. They are two of the brightest stars in this league."

Face of the franchise - it's a heavy label to put on any one or two players in a game that is heavily team orientated. And Carter and Richards have different reactions to it.

Carter, who probably would be happier if he never had to answer media questions, says he just doesn't care how people outside the team view him.

"I just go out and play hockey," Carter said. "I don't really care what they call me. Next question."

When Carter was asked how he sees his role and Richards' role on the team, it's clear that he does, in fact, care and take his role seriously. And he thinks it's their time to lead.

"Obviously, Richie is the captain and I like to think of myself as a leader on the team," Carter said. "We're still young guys but we're pretty vocal in the room and I think we try to go out and lead by example. When you play on the top two lines and you get put into that position, I think so."

Richards has a different view, not one that shies away from leadership, but one that deflects the spotlight.

"I wouldn't even come close to saying that [he and Carter are the faces of the franchise]," Richards said. "[Simon Gagne] has been here much longer than me and Jeff. I don't think you can look at it like that.

"Washington's got [Alex] Ovechkin, the face of the franchise. I would say [Sidney Crosby] is more the face of the [Penguins'] franchise than [Evgeni Malkin] is, but if you look at us we have Kimmo [Timonen], myself, Jeff, [Gagne] has been here forever."

And he is right.

Gagne, who has been with the Flyers since he was a teenager, is back after missing most of the last regular season and all of the playoffs with concussion symptoms. He is eager to get back to the postseason.

And they have shaggy haired Scott Hartnell, who will be in the middle of a ton of scrums and big scenes over the next several games, and veterans like Mike Knuble and Timonen. And, of course, the affable, talkative Biron is the goalie.

They are surely the names that pop up when discussing the last two Flyers seasons.

But think of it. Either Carter or Richards, or both, are on the ice in every critical situation and they have been for most of the last 2 years. They were once "the kids," but no longer, and for the first time in their careers they go into the playoffs as the lead guys.

If the Flyers are to advance deep into the postseason, Carter and Richards will be at the center of it and they will be the leaders.

Veterans Jason Smith and Derian Hatcher are gone from the lineup. Timonen is a leader, but this Flyers team will hear it and see it from Carter and Richards if things are not going well.

"They've had strong regular seasons. Mike is in his first year as the captain and Jeff's had his year. It's not all on them," said Knuble, the elder of the team.

"But we expect them to be leaders throughout and they will get big ice-time and play in big situations and hopefully great things happen."

Knuble doesn't shy away from the idea that this is finally Carter's and Richards' team, especially considering the loss of Hatcher, Smith, Sami Kapanen and Jim Dowd from the core of the team that went to the conference finals last year.

"Oh, of course," Knuble said. "Just the commitment that teams make to younger players now. They are the core group of your team. It used to be the other way around - the veterans were the core group and those were the guys who led your team. Now the trick is for management to identify who is going be their core and the way the [collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players] is, you've got them for a while.

"So they have to make good decisions right away and obviously Jeff and Mike are two guys that the organization has gone with. That comes after seeing what types of players, types of guys they are, how they handle themselves in the room and knowing that they are going to grow into that.

"Obviously Jeff has. With his play on the ice he commands a ton of attention. And he's a fierce competitor, and before he didn't know if it was his place and now he knows it's his place.

"And Mike is our leader and our captain and he has always been a fierce competitor on the ice and I think people knew that. But Jeff gets upset when things aren't going well on our team and he demands a lot of his teammates, more than people think."

None of this is to suggest that Carter and Richards will win or lose this Penguins series by themselves. The Flyers are a deep offensive team.

They have six players with at least 25 goals; four have at least 30 with Carter's 46 leading the way. Biron will have to be good throughout and stand on his head when Crosby or Malkin get an open look.

They will get lots of ice time from Timonen and Braydon Coburn, but without contributions from Gagne, Danny Briere, Hartnell, Joffrey Lupul and Claude Giroux, the Flyers will go nowhere.

But expect to see either Carter or Richards, or both, on the ice when Crosby or Malkin is on the ice.

Richards is likely to go head-to-head with Crosby the whole series, the same way he did last year and in the 19 times these two teams have played over the last two seasons.

In the first two games, Pittsburgh will have home-ice and the last line change and will be able to dictate how the lines match up, but expect to see Richards on Crosby.

Pittsburgh likes to play Jordan Staal, another big center, on Carter, so John Stevens will have a tougher time getting Carter on either Malkin or Crosby.

But he knows that his two young stars are at center stage and will be that way for a long time.

"I would be careful putting them in [face of the franchise]," Stevens said. "There are other guys I would put in that group. Simon Gagne has been a long-standing member, he's come through the ranks, and he's had a lot of success here and developed himself into one of the best two-way players in the world.

"He's a key, key guy and there are other guys that have been here for some time. Knuble is one of them. I wouldn't throw it all on Mike and Jeff.

"But they are certainly a big part of the core group of our hockey team. It's certainly the beginning of their time. They matured to the point now where they are keys to our team.

"They both have leadership roles. Mike is the captain, Jeff is a member of our leadership group and they both play in every key situation presented in a hockey game.

"They are on the ice for 20 minutes every night and they have a big chunk of our team. I think it's great to have two guys like that on your team, guys that you drafted together and who developed together as part of our organization.

"This is their time for sure." *