ON JUNE 30, the day before the opening of free agency, Mike Knuble packed up the car and his family and left South Jersey for his summer home in Michigan. His plans for the upcoming season were unknown.

The Flyers - strapped by the salary cap and the addition of Chris Pronger's high salary - were in touch with his agent during the long drive.

He didn't know he would be leaving the Delaware Valley for good. But he knew he didn't want to leave.

"If I had my choice, I guess I wouldn't want to uproot everything," Knuble said yesterday. "But I guess I landed OK."

Knuble, 37, tried to work out a deal by giving the Flyers a hometown discount to remain with the team. But Washington's 2-year, $5.2 million offer was too big to pass up.

The last time Knuble changed teams - moving from Boston to Philadelphia in 2005 - he had a year to digest it with the NHL lockout.

Last night, Knuble was back for the first game in the Wachovia Center - only this time as a member of the visiting team. He received a warm introduction from the Flyers' faithful when he was introduced as one of th Capitals' starters.

But when he skated onto the ice just minutes before the drop of the puck, Knuble took a long look down the other end of the ice.

"I don't know if it's good to be back quick or wait [until] later," Knuble said, shrugging his shoulders. "It's a pretty unique situation. It's happened really fast. After being 4 years in one spot, it's hard to change gears.

"You know, all of the logistical stuff like moving everyone, getting everyone in school. It was a busy summer. It's just different. I'm still in the NHL. Washington is still a great city."

He is with a team that, like the Flyers, looks like a serious challenger for the Stanley Cup. And he has a chance to skate with some of the NHL's best talent on a daily basis.

"Crazy things happen on the ice," Knuble explained. "It's just a fun team to play with, lots of run-and-gun hockey. It's fun to see them operate.

"[Alex Ovechkin] just really loves to play. He has the stats and numbers, so just to see him get those stats is special. He really works hard. It doesn't matter if he is a superstar, he just likes to be at the rink every day."

Knuble harbors no ill-will toward the Flyers. He knows it is a business. He flourished under the systems that John Stevens employed, posting 221 points in 310 games in the four most consistent seasons of his career.

"The [Flyers] were up against the cap at the time," Knuble said. "I wanted to take less money to stay but it just didn't work out that way. The trade-off wasn't there. It's not that they didn't want to - they were very open about it all spring. They tried and you can only do so much."

The Flyers wanted him. Knuble wanted to play for the Flyers. But each has gone their separate ways, with each team sporting a different look this season.

"Our team is a little different now," Stevens said. "Mike played hard all the time and set a really good example for what was a younger team. I just think of the impact he had in our locker room and the respect he had. It's always tough."

It is ironic, with Randy Jones' demotion to the Phantoms, that the Flyers now have the cap room that would have prevented this painful breakup.

The kid knows people

With the Minnesota Vikings' win on "Monday Night Football," rookie James van Riemsdyk captured the Flyers' team football pool for the week. He went a perfect 14-0, beating out fellow forward Claude Giroux.

When asked how he knew who to pick, van Riemsdyk said with a grin, "I know a guy."

Those North Jersey guys really do know people.

Kick saves

Riley Cote, Arron Asham and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen were scratched again from the lineup, though Cote was the only one to be introduced during the team's on-ice pregame festivities . . . The Flyers' wives, led by Stacy Stevens and Heather Hatcher, have been working with the Firefly Literacy Fund to help establish a library at the Southwark School in South Philadelphia. They will be at the school today to start painting. *