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Star centre Briere expects to return to Philadelphia lineup on Friday

VOORHEES, N.J. - The Flyers are closer to adding that impact player that so many teams look for around the trade deadline. They won't even have to discuss deals or go outside the locker room to find a former all-star.

Danny Briere is feeling stronger, fresher and more confident that he can finally return to the lineup this week after missing 33 games with groin problems. Briere had set Wednesday as his target date, but the star centre now expects to play in Philadelphia's game against Montreal on Friday night.

Briere, in the second year of a US$52-million, eight-year contract, has played in nine games this season for the Flyers and none since he injured his groin against Tampa Bay on Dec. 2.

Briere hasn't entirely ruled out Wednesday's game against Los Angeles, but that appears unlikely. He's worked harder just about every day since returning to practice nearly two weeks ago and had perhaps his most exhausting day on Monday. He skated more shifts subbing for Jeff Carter (flu) and was winded after some sprints after practice.

"We had a pretty hard skate there at the end and we'll see tomorrow how it reacts," Briere said. "Last week, after Wednesday's skate, the next couple of days were a little tougher. I'm hoping that I'm going to pull over that hump, and even through a tough practice and tough skate, I can recuperate and be fine the next day."

He'll travel with the Flyers and practise with the team before Tuesday's game against Washington. The Capitals have the second-best record in the Eastern Conference and the Flyers, who eliminated Washington in last year's playoffs, are fourth (31-17-9). A healthy Briere would be a big bonus for the Flyers as they make their playoff push. He had 31 goals and 72 points last year and helped Philadelphia go from the worst team in the NHL to the Eastern Conference finals.

He was in a similar situation when he played for Buffalo in 2005-06, and came back strong after missing 32 games with an abdominal injury to lead the Sabres to their first playoff berth in four years.

Could he do the same for the Flyers?

"Hope so," said Briere, smiling. "You've got to get that confidence back. You've got to get that timing back."

Briere refused to call his delay a setback, saying it's taken him longer than expected to get 100 per cent healthy. He has nine points (five goals, four assists) in nine games this season.

He was expected to be out for up to a month after late October surgery on his torn abdominal muscle, then returned two weeks later and scored a goal in his first game back. Briere was hurt again in mid-November against the Islanders, sat out nine games, then left against the Lightning with a strained groin. There was a conditioning stint with Philadelphia's AHL affiliate in January, then another surgery later that month to free an entrapped nerve in his groin.

The Flyers, who need to clear about $2.5 million in salary cap space to fit Briere on the roster, don't want Briere to play until he's fully recovered.

If Briere suffers another setback, the Flyers want to know where they stand before the March 4 trade deadline.

"We're not going to put Danny in until he's ready," coach John Stevens said. "We're not going to push Danny ahead of schedule and put him in harm's way. I think he has to feel comfortable with when he comes back, and when he is, we'll get him in."

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