THERE WAS a method to Ray Emery's madness.

No one knew that the Flyers' No. 1 goaltender, who had been growing surly with the Philadelphia media over the past week, was suffering through a serious injury.

The Flyers announced yesterday that Emery, who allowed 21 goals over his last five starts, will have surgery today at Hahnemann University Hospital to repair a torn muscle in his lower abdominal wall and is expected to be out 6 weeks.

"It has been bothering Ray probably since, I want to say, mid-November and it's gotten progressively worse," general manager Paul Holmgren said. "We tried to approach it through rehab and through cortisone injections and stuff like that.

"It just wasn't progressive to the point where [we] or Ray felt comfortable moving forward, so we decided to move ahead and get this surgery done."

Holmgren told the Daily News, when asked on Nov. 22, that Emery was not injured.

Peter Laviolette, who replaced John Stevens as coach last weekend, revealed Monday in Montreal that Emery was suffering a "nagging" injury. It was obviously a problem before Laviolette arrived. Goaltending coach Jeff Reese said the torn muscle gave Emery trouble navigating the crease.

"It affects your explosiveness," Reese said. "You can go down in your butterfly and not feel it, but any change in direction of the puck - if you have to fire that leg out or fire across the crease - it's all strength in there."

Despite the injury, which happened sometime before the Flyers' West Coast trip started Nov. 18, Emery insisted that he was fine and wanted to play.

"We knew there was something going on a little bit ago," Reese said. "He was trying to fight through it. You've got to give him credit. But it just kept progressing and progressively getting worse.

"That's just a great quality. He wanted to try to play through it. It just got to the point where he couldn't go."

Emery's injury could present Stevens' firing in a new light. Emery started five of the six losses in a 2-week stretch that ultimately cost Stevens his job. While the goaltending was just one part of the Flyers' problems, Emery's injury - and willingness to play through it - skews those results.

"I talked to John and John knew the situation I was in," Emery said. "He asked me to be in there. I feel bad that things happened the way they did. I liked playing for him and thought he was a great coach, but those aren't my decisions."

Holmgren said that he "absolutely" attributes Emery's poor play to his injury.

"I think just from watching Ray in practice, and you guys who follow the team on a regular basis know how hard he practices," Holmgren said. "In my opinion, he couldn't practice the way he normally practices, and I think his game suffered."

Now, Laviolette is forced to ride Brian Boucher for the foreseeable future.

Swedish goalie Johan Backlund, in his first pro season in North America, was summoned from Adirondack to back up Boucher. Holmgren said that given the Flyers' busy schedule, he has "no problem" with Backlund playing if needed. Backlund, 28, has a 2.81 GAA in 15 games with the Phantoms. He has never appeared in an NHL game.

Holmgren said the Flyers will "see what's out there" on the goaltending market.

"You never know until you stick a guy in how he's going to do," he said.

Boucher hasn't played more than 22 games in an NHL season since 2003-04. If Boucher starts the bulk of the Flyers' games until Jan. 20, which is 6 weeks from today, he will almost be at 30 starts for the season.

"He's excited," Reese said of Boucher. "This is his chance. We've just got to score some goals now, because he's kept us in a lot of games."

Before last night's 6-2 win over the Islanders, the Flyers had scored only one goal in Boucher's last three starts (all losses).

Holmgren knows how "critical" it would be to have his goaltending shored up in December. He conceded yesterday that the Flyers' current stretch of 12 games in 20 days, for a team already behind the eight-ball in the playoff race, could make or break the season.

"I look at the standings and this year, more than in the past couple of years since the lockout, the bottom - other than maybe Carolina in our conference - the bottom teams on both sides are still fairly close to the teams that are in the top eight," Holmgren said. "We certainly can't continue the way we're going if we expect to make the playoffs."

A nit-Witt driver

Islanders defenseman Brendan Witt was just looking for a cup of coffee. Instead, he found a GMC Yukon.

Yesterday morning, Witt left the Islanders' Center City hotel to walk to a Starbucks when a driver made an illegal left turn onto Arch Street and hit him. Onlookers said Witt saw the gold Yukon coming and tried to jump on top of the hood but ended up on the ground after being struck.

After a few profanities, the 6-2 Witt surprised onlookers by dusting himself off and walking away as if nothing happened.

"I'm OK," Witt told the crowd, according to Newsday. "I've got to go play some hockey. I'm a hockey player. I'm OK. No big deal."

He wasn't lying. Witt went on to play more shorthanded time than any other Islander last night.

Kick saves

David Laliberte was recalled from Adirondack to replace Riley Cote in the Flyers' lineup. Cote played just 2 minutes and 57 seconds Monday in Montreal. Laliberte chipped in with two goals and one assist in eight games earlier this season.