ZAC RINALDO is a valuable player for the Flyers, his reputation to the contrary. When he is good - drawing penalties, creating hesitancy - they are usually good as well. Not to put too fine a point on this - he is usually a fourth-line guy, after all, and the minutes will never be big - but if the Flyers are to make a serious run this spring, Rinaldo could potentially play a meaningful part in it.

But then games like last night's happen - and, well, now what? With the playoffs still not clinched and only four games remaining in the season, what do they do about Zac?

Brendan Shanahan, the NHL's dean of discipline, will review the hit that got Rinaldo kicked out of the Flyers' 5-2 win over Buffalo. He will see the Sabres' Chad Ruhwedel was kind of leaning over and he will see Rinaldo contacting Ruhwedel's head. The Sabres say he has a concussion.

Bad hit. No excuses.

"I just had a lot of speed going at him . . . my shoulder down," Rinaldo said. "As I hit him, he shot the puck. My shoulder hit his head, clearly."

And this:

"The proof's in the pudding right there," Rinaldo said. "I shouldn't have done it. There was no need for it. We were up 4-0 and there was no need for that hit, but it is what it is. It's part of the game."

And, finally, this:

"It's part of the game, man," Rinaldo said. "It's tough. He's a righthand shot. I slapped the puck toward him. I didn't want to let him get that shot off. I had a lot of speed going at him . . . As he went down, his head went down. It's tough. Everything happens so quick out there, you can't even describe it. It's tough."

Shanahan's decision will be what it is. The playoffs will begin in about a week-and-a-half and the Flyers will presumably be in them, and coach Craig Berube will know these things:

That they are noticeably better when the Good Rinaldo plays.

That it is hard to predict when that will be.

Or, as Rinaldo himself said, "That always happens with me. I get on a good streak and then something bad always happens. But I deal with it and try not to think about it too much."

Because he did score a goal against the Sabres. And Berube said he played well on Saturday in Boston. Berube is a big Rinaldo fan, and he sees what everyone else sees - as he said, "[He] takes the body, hits, he disrupts people."

But he also took three minor penalties before getting kicked out of the game. Rinaldo dissected them all and had explanations/issues along the way, but Berube said all of the minors were deserved, and the head shot was the head shot, and now Shanahan will get to decide.

"I don't know," Rinaldo said. "I don't know. I haven't talked to Shanahan or anyone like that for maybe a year-and-a-half now. So I don't know what to expect - it could go either way."

Put it this way: If it goes Rinaldo's way, he will be an exceedingly fortunate guy. He has a reputation and it is well-earned and he knows it. He seems to fight to stay on the right side of, as he calls it, "that fine line I play on," and when he does, his minutes are both memorable and effective.

The Flyers really do feed off him when he is at his best - which is why the coach likes him so much.

"I feed off of everyone else," Rinaldo said. "I feed really good off of Simmer [Wayne Simmonds] and really good off of [Scott] Hartnell - so when they're on their game, I get on my game. Maybe I feed the other guys' energy, too. I don't know . . .

"I've been doing that since, bleep, 8 years old. Nothing's really changed. I'm just continuing what I've been born to do, really."

And now comes the latest reckoning. When Berube looks at Rinaldo's minor penalties and says, "Gotta be smarter," it is something he has said at least a dozen times this season. Maybe more than a dozen.

But with the games now meaning so much, and the games set to mean a whole lot more in a week-and-a-half, and both the potential and the pitfalls so clear, what does he do about Zac?