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Associated Press
10/25/2006 7:33:31 PM

VOORHEES, N.J. (AP) - With a slight grin on his face and a chuckle after his composed words, Peter Forsberg hardly sounded like a Flyers captain ready to raise a ruckus and rally his teammates.

Instead, his simple message for the NHL-worst Flyers was this: Don't panic. There's still ample time to salvage a sinking season.

"It's a long way from being over. We've got 74 games left," Forsberg said after Wednesday's practice. "It's early. We've just got to make sure we can turn it around."

No more excuses. No blaming the coach. Ken Hitchcock's barking demands have been replaced by John Stevens' soothing instruction. The coaching change so many players wanted happened.

So can the renewed Flyers get out of the cellar and jostle into playoff contention?

"I think everybody's a little curious to see how we're going to respond," Stevens said. "You can practise and practise and practise. Now it's time to put it in motion."

The sweeping changes, that included the resignation of general manager Bob Clarke, came at a fortuitous time for the Flyers, with a rare break in the schedule giving Stevens four practices before Thursday's game against Atlanta, the first of five straight at home.

"It's a big game. It's a very big game," Stevens said.

The Flyers played six of their first eight games on the road, including a 9-1 loss at Buffalo that convinced chairman Ed Snider he needed to fire Hitchcock after three-plus seasons without a Stanley Cup finals appearance.

No doubt, the responsibility of lifting the Flyers out of last place falls even more on the shoulders of the players than it did a week ago. The results so far give little reason for optimism. Philadelphia's 1-6-1 start is the team's worst since the 1989-90 season, and they are on their first five-game losing streak since 2002.

The Flyers are already 15 points behind Buffalo in the Eastern Conference standings.

"There's a lot of stress around here because of the start we've had," Stevens said. "The fact of the matter is, we haven't executed the way we need to."

Stevens tinkered with the lines this week in practice, looking for any sort of combination that will spark a winning streak. Playing at home should help some. Keeping the puck out of the net would be huge.

While the Flyers have scored a paltry 15 goals, they've allowed a whopping 32.

Antero Niittymaki (1-4, 2.99 GAA) gets the start against the Thrashers on Thursday and Stevens said Robert Esche (0-2, 6.50 GAA) will start at least once in the next three games. Esche and Hitchcock had a strained relationship and the two barely spoke. Looking for a fresh start, Esche was one of the first Flyers to speak with Stevens and pledged to bring a more energetic attitude in practice.

Unlike Hitchcock, Stevens hadn't developed a reputation in the minor leagues as a coach who butts heads with his players. Stevens earned trust and respect with many of the young Flyers that now load the roster, coaching them with the team's AHL affiliate, the Phantoms.

"He's a great teacher, he's a great coach," centre Mike Richards said. "He's played the game so he knows the situation everyone's going through."

Stevens is just as demanding as Hitchcock, but more willing to give younger players a chance to learn and play through their mistakes.

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