DANNY BRIERE did not hesitate.
He cannot remember the last time life was this good. Even though he has missed three games due to suspension, Briere leads the Flyers with 14 goals, he is completely healthy, and - for the first time in a long time - everything is falling into place off the ice.
For the last 2 years, Briere struggled with a divorce that he admits sometimes affected his play. But the Flyers' highest-paid player - and at times, most lethal weapon - says that's behind him.
"There were a lot of things going on that probably didn't go the way I wanted to," Briere said in a candid November interview. "Right now, my life is a lot easier. The last few years have been tough, with a lot of energy wasted away from the rink. Now, I can focus that energy on my time at the rink and my kids. It's positive energy. All the negative energy is out of my system."
It has shown on the ice, where Briere's 14 goals have him on an early track to hit the 40-goal plateau for the first time in his 12-year NHL career. Quietly, Briere entered last night tied for fifth in the NHL in goals.
And his goals have come at clutch times: the first-ever goal scored at Pittsburgh's new Consol Energy Center on opening night, at least three in an attempt to spark comebacks in games in which the Flyers were down, and two game-winners last weekend in wins over the Islanders and Devils.
He looks like the same Briere who tallied 12 goals and 18 assists in 23 playoff games last year. It took him 37 games last regular season to post the 30 points he did in 23 playoff games.
"I think he's picked up right where he left off last year," said coach Peter Laviolette. "He's got a lot of confidence. He's a talented guy, that's why he was brought here originally. For whatever reason, he hadn't panned out here like he had wanted to until last year in the playoffs."
A big part of that was Briere's chemistry with linemates Scott Hartnell and Ville Leino. Last year in the playoffs, Laviolette threw Briere and Hartnell - two guys with similar, admitted off-ice struggles impacting their subpar regular seasons - with Leino, a player who was a healthy scratch for parts of his first 3 months as Flyer.
This year, Jeff Carter has agreed to experiment playing on the right wing to allow Briere to stay at center. Without Carter on the wing, Briere or Claude Giroux would need to shift back to that position instead of center.
"It's really the first time since I've been here that I've had steady linemates," Briere said. "My game is a lot about instincts and me feeling comfortable out there."
Briere's line is one of the few Laviolette has not tinkered with early this season, even though Briere said it "hasn't been as effective lately as it once was." Laviolette has instead chosen to shift players from the other three lines to different spots to try to create sparks when necessary.
"I think he's coming to the rink everyday and it's a place that he feels like he belongs," Laviolette said yesterday. "He's counted on to do a lot of different things. I think he's really comfortable right now."
Still, Briere refuses to call his season a success. He ended the third week of All-Star voting ranked 11th among all forwards with 132,826 votes. But he knows he is only a little more than a quarter of the way into the season - and it's only just starting to feel like hockey weather in Philly.
"It's a little early, I don't want to get ahead of myself," Briere said. "I feel good. Playing with those guys, every night I feel like I'm going to get some good opportunities to score. Our line always seems to find a way to create chances. My mindset going into almost every shift is that I have to be ready to bury those opportunities. It's a lot of fun."
While Briere believes his line is "ready to explode," everything else has settled down around him. Briere, 33, has spent this season living with fellow francophone Giroux. But on most off-nights and weekends, he usually can be found at the local rink with his hockey-obsessed sons Caelan, Carson and Cameron. With much of his tension at home dissipated, Briere said he has now been able to spend more time with his sons than ever before.
Laviolette said that one of the biggest things he has noticed about Briere is that "his mind is clear." That has helped provide a clear path for pucks to the back of the net.
"It's a big advantage, because you're not constantly thinking about it," Briere said. "I'm just enjoying life. Life has never been as nice as it is now. Leaving practice, not having to worry, and thinking about my kids and my work and focusing on the next game, that's what I always dreamt my life would be like. Finally, that's where I am."
Peter Laviolette turned 46 yesterday . . . Sergei Bobrovsky will make his fourth straight start in net tonight against San Jose . . . Ville Leino missed practice with an illness, but general manager Paul Holmgren said he doesn't think that will keep Leino out of tonight's lineup . . . The Sharks are 2-0 this season against the Atlantic Division . . . Chris Pronger is second among all defensemen in All-Star Game voting. Mike Richards (7th) and write-in candidate Claude Giroux (9th) are among the top 10 in voting for forwards. Bobrovsky, also a write-in, is second to Montreal's Carey Price for goalies.
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