BRIAN BOUCHER came out early, more than an hour before the Flyers' regulars practiced. Some of the extra players were at one end and Boucher was at the other end with goaltending coach Jeff Reese. It was a shock to see him, but he said it was his fourth time on the ice since injuring both knees in a pileup 13 days before.

He is trying to come back. With his team on the verge of the Stanley Cup finals, he is praying that the storybook has one more page.

"It would be so good to get back in the locker room," Boucher said. "It would be so good to get back with the guys. It really is so painful right now, being on the outside, looking in."

The initial diagnosis was a Grade 2 sprain of his left knee (although both knees were hurt). The initial prognosis from general manager Paul Holmgren was that Boucher would miss "as much as a month." Most of us figured that was that - and the sports world has a funny way of moving on pretty quickly, especially when the team is in the midst of making a historic comeback in a playoff series, as the Flyers were.

But Boucher, who has bounced around the NHL for a decade, who lost and regained the starting job twice this season because of injuries involving himself, Ray Emery and Michael Leighton, is nothing if not an optimist. As he said yesterday, "They never told me my season was done, and I'm not acting like it is."

Since suffering the injury in the middle of Game 5 of the Boston series, both Leighton and the defense in front of him have been great. With Saturday's 3-0 victory over the Montreal Canadiens, Leighton already has three shutouts in the series, a franchise record that even Bernie Parent never achieved.

The Flyers obviously are not changing goaltenders again at this point, and that is not what this is about. It is simpler than that, more pure in a way. It is just about belonging, and contributing. It is about a team that has come together through a lot of injuries and adversities, and about an athlete's desire to be part of something special again.

"I'm hoping," Boucher said. "I'm not doing it because I really enjoy practicing by myself. Like I said, I'm hoping - and so far, so good."

The first 2 days of practice, Boucher said, all he did were movements in the crease as he stood up - post-to-post kinds of things.

"There was no going down, no taking shots," he said. "The last 2 days, I took some shots but only in a really controlled setting. Every day so far, I've made progress. Each day, there haven't been any setbacks.

"There's no time for a setback now," he said.

It is the nature of pro sports, this isolation felt by injured players and their desperation to get back and be a part of the healthy group. It is something people don't really understand until they see it, but it happens in all sports.

It isn't as if anybody shuns you - it isn't like that at all. But events overtake all, especially in the postseason. The train just keeps moving out of necessity, and it moves quickly - and if you're not playing, you're not on it. That's just the way it is.

It is what drives Boucher now, the desire to get back. With a 3-1 series lead over the Canadiens, with one more win needed to make the franchise's first Cup final in 13 years, it is what he wants most of all.

As he practices, he says he still feels the sprained medial collateral ligament. Every kick, every drop into the goaltender's butterfly position, he feels it. He says he still has to think before he takes every action, calculating the effects. He says, "I obviously have to get past that before I can be ready."

As for a full practice, Boucher said, "That may be a few days away. I'm hoping. If I keep progressing, maybe a few days from now. I've been making big strides from, say, 5 days ago. But do I keep making big jumps or do they get smaller? That's the question.

"And like I said, I can't afford a setback. There just isn't time."

Boucher's place in the story of this remarkable season is already secure. He was great in the regular-season finale against the Rangers, which the Flyers won in a shootout to reach the playoffs. He was great in the first round of the playoffs against the Devils, outdueling a Hall of Fame certainty named Martin Brodeur. It will all be in the highlight film forever.

But this scene from yesterday was more interesting in its own way, and more telling: Boucher, sweating, grimacing, practicing alone. *

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