WASHINGTON - Matt Read laid on the trainer's table outside the Flyers' dressing room after yesterday's morning skate at Verizon Center as a steady stream of teammates passed by in suits.

His teammates were on their way to the bus, ready to head back to the team's hotel for lunch and a pregame nap. Read wasn't going anywhere.

The season is but 44 games old, but it's already been a long year for Read. He has spent much more time with the Flyers' medical staff than he could count.

Read, 28, revealed yesterday to the Daily News that he's been hampered by a high-ankle sprain for the past 2 months, since sustaining the injury Nov. 1 against Florida.

He said the pain, which has previously kept other Flyers out of the lineup for up to 6 weeks, finally subsided just after New Year's Day.

Read's injury could help explain why a player who averaged 23 goals over his first two full NHL seasons has collected just three in 44 games this season. He wouldn't let it serve as an excuse.

"I don't want to blame anything on that," Read said. "I wasn't playing very good hockey the first couple months of the season. I wasn't putting myself in the right areas to score. I wouldn't blame [the injury] at all. It's about getting to tough areas, shooting more pucks, doing all the little things right."

Unlikely to be coincidental, Read has looked more like the Read of old in the past few games now that the pain has subsided. He netted his second multipoint game of the season against the Capitals last week and entered last night's rematch with three points in his last three outings.

"I'm just finally getting through it," Read said. "The last couple of games, I've been feeling a lot better, a lot faster, a lot sturdier on my skates. I feel like I'm in better position out there because of that, skating a ton better."

Coach Craig Berube first hinted at a "foot issue" for Read on Dec. 15. When asked about it before Monday's game against the Lightning, Berube said he would "never say what kind of injury a guy had unless [the media] already knew."

When asked specifically about Read's high-ankle sprain yesterday morning, Berube acknowledged the issue. Read never once made the team's injury report. He is one of seven Flyers to play in every game.

"We knew it was an issue with him, obviously," Berube said. "He never once complained, once asked to be treated any differently. He's battled through it the whole time."

When asked how much he thought it impacted Read's game, Berube directed the question to Read.

"It's a very painful thing to deal with," Berube said. "But you'd have to ask him that."

Hindsight, especially in the case of injuries, is of course 20-20. By nature, high-ankle sprains are unlikely to be damaged further by playing. Read admitted he did not know the grade of severity of his sprain. However, he did say now he probably would have considered taking a step back and sitting out.

"Maybe taking a week off or something would have been best," Read said. "It's hard to say now. I was taking a lot of practices and optional [morning] skates off. I've been getting a lot of treatment."

It could also explain why he was still on the trainer's table yesterday. Dr. Mark Lindsay, a world-renowned chiropractor in Toronto who has treated the NHL's elite, told TSN's Bob McKenzie in his "Hockey Confidential" book that ankle issues are the most common cause for other muscles and joints to be out of whack.

"It's ankle, knee, hip . . . every time. Non-negotiable, 100 percent," Lindsay was quoted as saying.

"The ankle is sore, not broken or fractured - not anything that would prevent a hockey player from playing through the pain," he continued. "But maybe that pain hinders the athlete - very subtly, without him even recognizing it - causing him to maybe not flex his ankle to the same degree he normally would. Suddenly, the muscle-firing sequence that starts in skating with the flexion of the ankle is 'off' ever so slightly, and that alters every muscle movement up the leg and into the hips and core. When that sequence is off, it can cause muscles to break down or shut down, and one problem leads to another."

This season, just about every part of Read's game has been off. His shot percentage is a miserable 3.7 percent, well off his career average of 15 percent. He is a large contributor to the Flyers' penalty kill, which finished eighth last year and is 29th this season. It is impossible to tell how much of a ripple effect his ankle has caused in all of that, but it is at least the first plausible explanation for a severe dropoff from a promising winger.

"I think his whole game has been hurt this year," Berube said. "He is probably looking at his stats and things like that. That affects probably his penalty kill at times, too. Lately, Matt's been the better player that we know."

Let Zepp-win

One day after acknowledging that "everything's up in the air" with regard to the team's goaltending, Craig Berube decided to start 33-year-old rookie Rob Zepp for the second game in a row over established backup Ray Emery. Starter Steve Mason is expected to be out until after next weekend's All-Star break with a "lower-body" injury.

"Won last game. Liked the way he looked, that's all," Berube said of his decision. "No deep thoughts, boys. Just decided to play him."

Zepp earned a win in each of his first two NHL starts. Emery has played sparingly over the last 2 months when others have been healthy. He declined to comment to the media again yesterday, citing a new team policy from GM Ron Hextall forbidding goaltenders from speaking on game days - a rule that runs afoul of NHL bylaws.

"Ray's a very good pro and a very good team guy," Berube said. "He doesn't go against the team, Ray. He always does what's good with the team and he always handles everything well."

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