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March 28, 2001 - Primeau is sidelined

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Primeau is sidelined

by Les Bowen Daily News Sports Writer

As Keith Primeau channel-surfed last night, his left leg carefully propped, he couldn't resist checking out the Pittsburgh Penguins vs. the Buffalo Sabres on ESPN2.

"We just about have to play one of those teams in the first round of the playoffs," Primeau noted.

The Flyers, currently seeded fourth in the Eastern Conference, almost certainly will play the fifth-seeded Sabres or the sixth-seeded Penguins in the first round. But Primeau's chances of appearing in that series would seem almost nonexistent.

Primeau suffered what the Flyers yesterday said was a Grade II medial collateral ligament strain in his left knee during a 3-3 tie Monday in Ottawa. A Grade II strain is a partial tear. Flyers orthopedic surgeon Dr.Art Bartolozzi said Primeau would miss at least three weeks; there are just 12 days remaining in the regular season.

Last night, as he fielded consoling phone calls from teammates, Primeau wasn't quite ready to concede the entire first round, though the playoffs will start April 11-12.

"Maybe, best-case scenario," Primeau said he might be able to play a Game 7 on April 23 or 24. But he understood that wasn't likely. He will not skate before he is evaluated again in three weeks, which means he could hardly be ready to jump right back in the lineup, even if his knee tests well then. And there is no guarantee his knee will be healed in three weeks.

"I never imagined missing the first round of the playoffs," Primeau said. "This is such a great city this time of year, there's so much excitement. I'd rather miss all 82 [regular-season] games, and be able to play in the playoffs."

Primeau's absence from the final six games of the regular season might affect the Flyers' playoff seeding. But more important, it is hard to envision the Flyers winning a playoff series without their No. 1 centerman and their team-leading, 34-goal scorer. Primeau's 11 power-play goals and shooting percentage of .207 also lead the Flyers, and he takes more faceoffs than anyone else.

Hockey people often say that being strong up the middle is more important than having lots of talent on the wings. With Eric Lindros gone, Primeau has been the Flyers' strength at center ice.

"I would say he and Mark Recchi have been among the top five players in the league over the past two or three months," Flyers winger Rick Tocchet said last night. "Offensively, 'Rex' and 'Preems' have carried us."

Primeau's 34 goals are a career high and his 73 points tie a career high, set in 1993-94 in Detroit.

"It's the wrong time of year for this to happen," Primeau said. "At this point in the season, you feel you're letting your teammates down. . .I've just got to wait for the inflammation to go down and start doing rehab. I need to make sure I'm ready at the end of that three-week evaluation period, instead of starting to get ready then."

Tocchet said he knew Primeau would throw himself into rehab. "If there's a guy who's willing to do anything to get back, it's him," Tocchet said.

As big a hole as Primeau's absence punches in the Flyers' postseason plans, no one who has paid attention to them this season could feel comfortable writing their obituary. They've played virtually the whole season without John LeClair; and Recchi, Simon Gagne and Daymond Langkow have missed significant stretches. Brian Boucher, the goalie who was widely considered the key to the season in training camp, now is the little-used backup to Roman Cechmanek. And yet the Flyers are 28-11-6-2 since Bill Barber took over as head coach on Dec. 10.

"Our guys have battled through a lot of adversity," Primeau said.

"It's another major challenge for our hockey team," Barber said. Barber and general manager Bob Clarke met yesterday, but decided not to bring up anyone from the Phantoms to try to fill the void, Barber said.

"In my opinion, we can stay with what we have," Barber said. "The guys have earned that. We'll probably throw [Recchi and Gagne] into the middle here. We'll be shuffling again, like we have all year long."

Primeau's injury makes Langkow's return from broken bones in both feet all the more critical. Langkow, the Flyers' No. 2 center, said yesterday he will have more X-rays today. Langkow said he will "definitely" be ready when the playoffs start. "I'd like to be back a couple of games before that," he said.

Langkow has missed the last nine games, and has been limited to riding an exercise bike - he hasn't skated.

Primeau, meanwhile, said he "was in denial" when his leg buckled under him Monday. Primeau had the puck and was going wide on Ottawa defenseman Chris Phillips, 6 minutes, 34 seconds into the third period. Phillips shoved Primeau from behind just as Primeau's skate blade caught a rut in the ice, causing his knee to collapse to the inside, Primeau said.

Primeau said he was hoping for news of a milder strain yesterday, hoping to hear he only would miss a week or so, but he suspected from the swelling that he would get less sunny news from Dr. Peter DeLuca, who conducted the exam and gave him an MRI at a clinic in Mount Laurel, N.J.

"Ultimately, it didn't come as a surprise," Primeau said.

He acknowledged that he was in a fair amount of pain. "If I rotate my leg, I just come out of my feet," he said.

Primeau said the unfamiliar sight of him on crutches was sobering for his wife, Lisa, and their four children. But like his teammates, his family tried to lift his spirits.

"My wife said now she'd know what it was like to have five kids," Primeau said.