A few days ago, when asked about the goalie competition between starter Ray Emery and sizzling backup Brian Boucher, Flyers coach John Stevens said: "We brought Ray here to be the guy."

So it was a little surprising that Stevens announced yesterday that Boucher will start tonight against visiting Vancouver.

Surprising but understandable.

Lately, Boucher has been the Flyers' best goalie. He has a 1.45 goals-against average in his last four appearances. Emery has a 4.71 GAA in his last four starts.

Overall, Boucher has a 2.01 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage in five games, while Emery has a 2.65 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage in 20 games.

"We just feel Boosh is playing well," Stevens said after practice in Voorhees. "He's familiar with the Western Conference. We have a lot of games this weekend, and I think we're going to need both goalies to play."

Asked if he would ride the hot hand if Boucher continues to excel, Stevens said: "To say if Boosh is playing well I'm going to run with him [is inaccurate]. Ray is going to play and play a lot, but I think we're going to need Boosh to play and win us a fair amount of games as well. If you look at the schedule, the only break is the Olympic break" in February. "There's no rest in sight, and we're going to need both goalies playing at a high level."

Approached by a reporter, Emery said he did not know who was starting. He asked for more time before answering other questions but was then unavailable.

Defenseman Chris Pronger called it "good to have competition between the two goalies to push one another. It forces guys to get better and play with the confidence that they know - and we know - we can win with either one."

After a groin injury caused him to miss some of training camp, Boucher looked rusty in his first regular-season start, a 4-1 loss to his former team, San Jose, on Oct. 25.

Since then, he has been at the top of his game.

"It was obviously a tough first month for him, getting just one game in, but he's really rallied and gained confidence with each game," Pronger said.

Boucher played just once in the first 17 games but has played in four of the last seven contests, including once in relief.

"Obviously when you play, you feel more comfortable," Boucher said. "Even during practices when you're not playing [in games], there are times in practice where you feel real good. . . . You just try to be consistent every day, and that's what I try to do in practice - trying to be sharp, and it's obviously carried over into the games."

Because of so many days off in the first six weeks, Boucher didn't play much until the recent five-game road trip.

"I understood that the schedule was light," said Boucher, 32, who is in his third tenure with the organization (two with Flyers, one with Phantoms). "When you come to a new team, you'd like to play some games and feel a part of things. It's hard to do that when you play one game and lose that game - and you've got to sit with that for a while.

"That type of stuff doesn't bother me like when I was younger. I understand my role. I understand the big picture, and I know what I have to do to be ready. I knew the schedule would get a little more hectic and I'd get a chance to play on this last road trip."

Throw away his first start, and Boucher would have a .950 save percentage.

"He's proven to us he can play in any situation, whether it's after a long layoff or in back-to-back games," captain Mike Richards said. "He's proven he can steal some games for us."

Breakaways. Defenseman Oskars Bartulis, 22, recalled from the AHL Phantoms a little more than three weeks ago, signed a three-year extension for about $1.8 million, according to a source. "It gives me more confidence," Bartulis said. "I see the team trusts me, so it feels good.". . .. James van Riemsdyk, 20, was named the NHL's rookie of the month after collecting four goals and five assists in 12 games and scoring a league-best four game-winners.