Front-running seems to suit the Flyers this season

My weekly NHL column was going to feature the Flyers following my visit to Philadelphia for the Kings' game Sunday, but Mario Lemieux got in the way and his criticism of the NHL for its handling of the brawl last week between the Penguins and New York Islanders unavoidably became the main topic.

So here's what I was planning to write — with the addition of the Flyers' smart trade with Toronto on Monday to acquire winger Kris Versteeg, who helped beat them in the Stanley Cup finals last spring. The Blackhawks dealt him to the Maple Leafs because of their salary-cap crunch, and they miss the depth and abrasiveness he brought them.

Last season the Flyers made the playoffs only by winning a shootout in their last game of the season and they carried that momentum through a surprise run to the Stanley Cup finals.

This season they've taken the opposite approach, sitting atop the Eastern Conference most of the way and becoming a consensus Cup contender.

"We wanted to try and put ourselves in a better position at the end of the regular season and going into the playoffs than we did last year. That was really taxing and hard on us, though I think it ended up working to our advantage," General Manager Paul Holmgren said.

"But I also think we had a pretty good team and maybe we should have been higher up in the standings to begin with."

Although their scoring has faltered of late — they've produced only eight goals in their last five games — they appear to have the depth to recover. They enhanced their strength up front Monday by acquiring Versteeg from Toronto for first- and third-round picks in the June entry draft. Depth leads to steadiness: the longest they've gone without a point is three games, and that was in the first two weeks of the season.

"Our consistency has been really good throughout the year," Holmgren said. "Since we lost those three games, if we lost a game we came back really focused with an effort to turn it around right away. The coaches have played a big role in that."

But Holmgren gave them good material, especially on defense, by acquiring Andrej Meszaros from Tampa Bay for a second-round pick and signing former King Sean O'Donnell as a free agent. The Flyers' defense is balanced, muscular and mean, with Chris Pronger leading the way.

"We're certainly deeper on the back end than we were last year. Our third pairing, if you want to call it, is Sean O'Donnell and Meszaros, and they're both very high plus/minus," Holmgren said of O'Donnell, who is plus-12 defensively, and Meszaros, who is a team-best plus-27.

"Sean is a pretty stable individual and knows how to play the game and Meszaros is a guy that we've liked since he's been in the league. For a young guy he's been involved in a lot of games, been involved in a lot of big playoff games in his young career, so he's a guy that we targeted right away in the summertime to try and make us a deeper team."

They're also more stable behind the bench. They fired John Stevens in December 2009 when they were 13-11-1 and replaced him with Peter Laviolette. Stevens later joined the Kings as an assistant coach.

Holmgren, who made the call to dismiss Stevens, praised the work Stevens left behind.

"I'd be remiss if I didn't mention John. The defensive style that we had in place last season to make the playoff run that we did, I give John a lot of credit for putting that in place," Holmgren said.

"What Peter did was maybe change a little bit of how we approach the game in the neutral zone and in the offensive zone and kind of gave the players a little more freedom than they had under John, but certainly our defensive scheme has not changed and that's a credit to John and what he built here."

Having gone to the Cup finals last season, the Flyers should have a better idea of what to expect this time around. But Holmgren isn't assuming anything.

"You hope your players know what it takes. But our conference, it's just like the West. You get into the playoffs and anything can happen," he said. "It doesn't matter who you play — it's going to be a difficult opponent and you hope to get by that team and then you move on to the next opponent.

"So we know we've got a long road ahead of us to accomplish what we want."

Farewell, Forsberg

Two games into his attempted comeback with the Colorado Avalanche after a three-year absence from the NHL, Peter Forsberg retired. This, he insisted, is final.

"I won't be able to second-guess myself. I really tried and I tried and I tried. I'm really sure about my decision this time," he said at a news conference Monday in Denver.

"After this past weekend I came to the sad conclusion that I was going to have to retire. It was not an easy decision. Believe me, the process I went through was even tougher. Throughout my career I had 25 surgeries and I promised my fiancee . . . that I would not put my health at risk anymore."

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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