Besides the Flyers' improving defense and a dynamic offense - including a power-play unit that entered the weekend No. 1 in the NHL - there has been another common thread to the team's strong play the last two months:

Coach John Stevens is running a tight ship.

Stevens may be mild mannered, may not be half as animated as the referee-baiting Ken Hitchcock, but he has principles - and he sticks to them.

Those principles caused him to bench one of his top players, winger Scott Hartnell, during the third period of a Nov. 11 game in Long Island because "it looked like he didn't want to play tonight," Stevens said.

Hartnell has responded and, over the last month, has arguably been the Flyers' best player.

Those principles also caused Stevens to demote Joffrey Lupul to the fourth line last month because he didn't think he was being productive. Stevens lit a fuse. Lupul has also responded and was promoted to the second line, where he has flourished with Jeff Carter and Hartnell.

And on Wednesday, those principles caused Stevens to bench his prized rookie, Luca Sbisa, even though his parents and sister had traveled from Switzerland to watch the 18-year-old play and to be with him for the holidays.

Stevens wasn't being a Scrooge. He was just making sure the defenseman understood one of his rules: Miss a team meeting, and you miss a game.

Sbisa overslept. He got a wake-up call from his teammate and close friend, Riley Cote, at 9:40 a.m. - 10 minutes after a meeting started.

"Where are you?" Cote asked.

We're not sure if Sbisa responded in one of the four languages he speaks, but we are pretty sure he used some words we can't print in a family newspaper.

Sbisa said he didn't hear his alarm clock go off. "I just messed up. Next time, I'll have three or four clocks going," he said.

He jumped out of bed and hurried down to the Wachovia Center. In addition to missing the team meeting, he got on the ice five minutes after practice had started.

Never mind that Sbisa stayed on the ice longer than most of his teammates - something he has a habit of doing.

Never mind that he is one of the most dedicated players on the team and that he is the type of respectful person Stevens is cultivating.

He was scratched from the lineup that night against Ottawa.

"I think he got a new phone, and he didn't figure out the alarm, but I'm sure it'll be a lesson he won't soon forget," Stevens said. "But he's a great kid, and it's all part of growing up and being a good pro."

The feeling here is that Sbisa, like Hartnell and Lupul, will respond to Stevens' message.

The feeling here is that Stevens is the perfect coach for this team - he runs a tight ship


is also player-friendly. That's not an easy balance to establish.

Stevens coached several of the players when they were with the Phantoms and won the Calder Cup. They are comfortable with him and respect him. It's difficult to imagine any coach being more prepared or spending more time going over video to study opposing players' tendencies.

At the same time, Stevens is always accessible to his players. His door is always open. He also has a wonderful temperament for a coach. He is Johnny Cool.

Consider the demeanor he displayed after the referees blew an obvious penalty against Carolina and gave the Hurricanes a four-minute power play that produced two goals and a 5-1 lead in the Dec. 11 game.

Instead of verbally attacking the refs, Hitchcock-style, Stevens calmly explained his side and his expression was as excited as an undertaker's.

Stevens didn't seem desperate - and his team took a cue from his demeanor. They overcame a 5-1 third-period deficit and rallied past Carolina, 6-5, in a shoot-out - the best late-game comeback in the franchise's 41-year history.

Yes, Jeff Carter's 60-plus goal-pace, Simon Gagne's remarkable return and the power play's 27.9 percent success rate heading into the weekend are all reasons the Flyers are climbing the Eastern Conference standings.

But don't overlook Johnny Cool.