PITTSBURGH - Right about the time the Flyers were stuck in a losing streak that was threatening their playoff chances, John Stevens' future as the team's coach was being questioned.

It didn't help that the general manager had laid part of the blame right at Stevens' feet after one particularly bad loss in Pittsburgh. If you ask Stevens now if he was rattled by what was happening or if he doubted he would make the playoffs, his answer is no.

"I never doubted it," Stevens said. "If you looked around the league every team was having its ups and down. Even Detroit, as dominant as they were, had a seven-game losing streak.

"We had as much adversity as anyone in the league. We had a new team we were trying to develop and I always felt we had an opportunity to get better," Stevens said. "But I always knew we were going to have to help ourselves to get in, but I always believed we could.

"We had the players and the team. But I knew it wasn't going to be easy."

Easy is not something that Stevens has had a chance to understand. He was hired when Ken Hitchcock was fired, withstood the worst season in franchise history and then one of the longest and most difficult offseasons of his career.

"I had a lot of time in the summer to reflect," he said. "Last summer was a hard summer for me personally because we really felt like we worked as hard as we could to get better and they didn't get better.

"They did get better in the end, but we still finished last in the league and we had to go back and do a lot of review on our team and the way we did things and kind of reaffirm what we believed was the right thing to do for our team."

There is no question about his patience, and calm, believing approach to his job. No one questions his ability to coach and as far as Stevens is concerned there is a bright future ahead.

"I love this team," he said. "I love the character of this team, I love the way they get along. I love the way when guys are out they want to be a part of things.

"[Simon Gagne] is out but he wants to be around, [Derian] Hatcher, [Mike] Knuble when they were out were making sure they were down there in the locker room when guys went out. Kimmo [Timonen] comes down the last game and wants to be around. There are guys flying in here to make sure they are here with the team.

"I call it affection; maybe that's the wrong word but the group cares about each other and that's one of the key ingredients as a team to get better. There is just this belief in this team that we can win as a group," Stevens added.

"Our young players have emerged as star NHL players, we have veteran guys that are the leaders on our team. There are a lot of good things that are in place now and a lot of guys that have the ability to win and an opportunity to be together for a long time. And that bodes well for the future." *