PRESSURE.

In professional sports, it's something that players either feed off or cave under. And the pressure cooker doesn't get any hotter than in a rookie goaltender's crease during March and April as each point and each goal becomes more and more crucial.

For Sergei Bobrovsky, the final examinations have already started. Now, as the Flyers move into the final 25 to 30 games of the season, coach Peter Laviolette administered his first test last Thursday against Nashville - to see if Bobrovsky would bounce back after a being pulled in the first period on Tuesday at Tampa Bay. He passed.

"It was a very important game,'' Bobrovsky said through a translator. "It was very important for me to rehabilitate myself in front of the team and also for myself.''

Laviolette has had no reason not to flip-flop between Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher. As he puts it, he has no reason to make any sort of determination this far in advance of the Flyers' inevitable playoff appearance.

"I don't really make those decisions too far in advance,'' Laviolette said. "We trust both of them and they've had great years. We'll just keep moving along and keep both of them active.''

While it is February - and different variables could come into play between now and April - we all know that goalie tandems don't work well in the playoffs. It's easier to find a dwarf water buffalo than a coach who likes to waffle goalies in the playoffs.

There is a reason only four rookie goaltenders have willed their team to a Stanley Cup. Laviolette rode one of them, Cam Ward, to a Cup in Carolina in 2006. But few have handled rookies better than former Flyers coach Craig Ramsay, like he did in 2000 with Boucher while he was the interim coach with Roger Neilson undergoing cancer treatments.

"Craig pulled me and John Vanbiesbrouck aside around this time of year and said, 'We're going to play you guys in three-game segments,' " Boucher recalled. "And then when we get to the last five or six games, we'll determine who will play in the playoffs. It was like a showcase for the last 30 games.

"It was a really odd circumstance. I've never had another coach do that since. I was shocked. I think 'Beezer' was shocked, too.''

While strange, Ramsay's theory was brilliant. It relieved the pressure in Boucher's mind. He could play three games and - no matter the results - know he would play another three.

"It was different,'' Boucher said. "I never really felt pressure. I was just like, 'All right, well, I'll play three games and then get my three games off.' It wasn't like they said, 'Here's the job, it's yours.' I got it right before the playoffs and I didn't even have time to think about it.

"For me, it was an easy situation.''

Even through one of the most tumultuous seasons in Flyers history, Eric Lindros' last in Philly, Boucher helped the team rally from 15 points back in March to win the Atlantic Division and the No. 1 seed on the last day of the season. He bounced Buffalo in the first round and witnessed Keith Primeau's historic five-overtime winner in the second round against Pittsburgh before his teammates collapsed in front of him in Game 7, blowing a 3-1 series lead against New Jersey in the Eastern Conference finals.

Last June, the Flyers watched Antti Niemi, another rookie, hoist the Cup inside the Wells Fargo Center for the Blackhawks. As the second rookie in 4 years, Niemi was proof that Ward was no fluke.

Bobrovsky's next start will be his 35th appearance of the season, tying his career high set last season in Russia. But Niemi said the playoffs, for a rookie, are much more about mental preparation than the physical wear and tear.

"It's not that bad physically,'' Niemi said in an interview with the Daily News. "You train for that all season. The first thing is about getting the mind-set down.

"There is a lot of pressure to not give up a soft goal because you know it can turn a series around. Each one matters. Physically, you're going to be ready to play.''

Boucher said you "don't even think about the physical demands.'' For Niemi, it was about "proving you belong.''

"People tend not to believe a rookie can win,'' Niemi said. "They don't believe in you, but you need to prove them wrong.''

Even with the Stanley Cup ring on his finger, Niemi is still in the process of proving. The salary-capped Blackhawks let him walk in free agency last summer after a hefty arbitration award, allowing him to sign with San Jose.

It's important to note that last year it was not Niemi but rather Cristobal Huet who played the bulk of the Blackhawks' games. Ward appeared in only 28 regular-season games for Carolina in 2006. Bobrovsky is on pace to shatter both of those numbers.

Laviolette undoubtedly wants to continue to test Bobrovsky under the rigors of the regular season to see how he responds before the real season starts on April 12. He just may be wise to keep Bobrovsky out of the frying pan. Goalies in Philadelphia just aren't treated the same.

EMERY SIGNS WITH DUCKS

 Former Flyers goalie Ray Emery took his first step in getting back to the NHL yesterday by signing a two-way contract with the Anaheim Ducks for the rest of the season. Emery, 28, had bone-graft surgery last March, while with the Flyers, to spur healthy blood flow in his hip.

According to TSN in Canada, the Ducks will pay Emery a prorated $500,000 while on their NHL roster and a prorated $105,000 when he is with AHL Syracuse.

The Flyers reportedly were interested in acquiring Emery, possibly as an insurance policy. He is still available to the Flyers - and all 28 other teams - on the waiver wire. He would need to be claimed before today's noon deadline.

ON-ICE

 STAT WATCH:

93 percent: Efficiency at which the Flyers' penalty kill has operated since Jan. 16, killing 25 of 27 penalties. The Flyers are 7-2-0 during that stretch.

26 percent: The Flyers' power-play efficiency since Jan. 20, converting six of 23 opportunities. This is the Flyers' combined best stretch of the season for both units.

3: Number of power plays per game the Flyers have allowed the last 10 games, compared to 5.2 in the first 10 games of the season.

19,561: The Flyers' average attendance through 27 home dates at the Wells Fargo Center this year, operating at 100.8 percent capacity. The Flyers set a revenue record last season by hosting the Stanley Cup finals.

THE WEEK AHEAD:

vs. Carolina, Thursday, 7 p.m.

This marks the Flyers' first of two meetings with the Hurricanes this month, as they travel to the RBC Center next Friday to close out the season series. The Flyers have outscored Carolina, 11-3, in the first two games this season, both wins. 'Canes captain Eric Staal has 53 points in 53 games. Boasting a balanced attack, Carolina has seven players with 10 or more goals compared to the Flyers' eight. Cam Ward has been a workhorse in net for Paul Maurice, playing 2,629 minutes in 46 starts.

vs. Los Angeles, Sunday, 3 p.m.

Before embarking on a four-game road swing next week, the Flyers will host the Los Angeles Kings, and assistant coach John Stevens, in a Sunday matinee. Despite currently bringing up the rear of the brutal Pacific Division, the Kings - skating with big expectations - entered last night's action in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. One of last year's Norris Trophy finalists, Drew Doughty, has come back to earth after a sensational season. The Kings' Jonathan Quick and Nashville's Pekka Rinne could be Vezina candidates if it weren't for Boston's Tim Thomas.

PHANTOMS PHILE:

After being blown out in Syracuse, 5-0, on Friday night, the Phantoms responded with a 4-0 shutout on Saturday in Hamilton, Ontario. Michael Leighton is just 3-7-1 in net for the last-place Phantoms.