SCOTT HARTNELL is a veteran of 661 games at hockey's highest level.

Having played in the league since he was drafted as an 18-year-old in 2000, Hartnell has essentially grown up in the NHL. For him, few periods of his career have been as trying as the first 63 games of this season.

Hartnell is on pace for 15 goals, his worst output since 2003. Hartnell has not scored in 11 straight games and has the lowest shooting percentage of any Flyers forward other than Ian Laperriere.

After finishing fourth on the Flyers in scoring last year - posting a career high in goals (30), assists (30) and points (60) - this is hardly the season Hartnell, or any of the Flyers' brass, expected. He was supposed to compensate for the goals scored by players who departed in the offseason.

"It hasn't been the year I dreamt of," Hartnell admitted after yesterday's brief practice. "It's a little frustrating, for sure. Hopefully, the goals will come. Hopefully, it's a matter of time."

Flyers assistant coach Craig Berube, who filled in yesterday for Peter Laviolette, who was suffering from the flu, said he has watched both Jeff Carter and Hartnell intensely this season. Both players, who have been criticized for underachieving this season, have gone in wildly different directions since early December.

On Dec. 6, Hartnell and Carter both had nine goals. In the 38 games since, Carter has 21 goals and Hartnell has scored just three times.

Berube said the difference was confidence.

"I give Carter a lot of credit," Berube said. "He never lost his confidence. Now it's paying off. He stays with it. He knows he'll get his chances and he knows the puck will go in eventually.

"I talked to 'Hartsy' [yesterday] a little bit about simplifying his game. He needs to come down the wing, shoot pucks, get to the net. That's where he gets goals. Power play, being around the net, winning those battles, and getting the puck in the net."

Hartnell, unlike other players going through scoring slumps, hasn't been buried in the lineup. He is still playing with top-shelf forwards Carter and Danny Briere.

Hartnell, 27, is best when he plays with an edge, digging for pucks and wreaking havoc in front of the opponent's goaltender.

So far, the frustration has boiled over on the ice - and it hasn't been pretty. On Sunday against the Maple Leafs, a visibly bothered Hartnell dropped the mitts with rough-and-tumble defenseman Dion Phanuef, who has long been mentioned as one of the NHL's toughest players.

Not surprisingly, Hartnell lost the fight. He already has 127 penalty minutes and is on pace for 163, which would be a career high.

Berube suggested Hartnell's problems could reside between his ears.

"Sometimes, when you stop scoring, you start trying to think too much and do too much," Berube said. "He just has to simplify his game. He's a simple hockey player. Last year, I think that's how he scored 30. He got to the net.

"You know Carter is going to shoot it. Just get to the net."

Hartnell, nicknamed "Bird Dogg" by his teammates, is normally one of the most jovial players in an already-fun locker room. This season, there haven't been many jokes coming from his corner of the locker room.

"He's frustrated," Berube said. "He just has to stay positive. You're down to 18 games now. His goal should be to just get on track the way he's normally used to playing. He should be getting ready for the playoffs and make sure that when he gets to the playoffs, he's flying at full speed."

He has a little more than 4 weeks to do it. Hartnell has two of his 12 goals and six points in four games against the Islanders this season. Tonight, when the Isles visit, is the perfect time to start.

Back to Boucher?

Craig Berube wouldn't shed any light on the identity of the starting goaltender for tonight's game, but he did say there had been discussion about whether to give the nod to Brian Boucher.

With four games every week until the regular season ends on April 11, Michael Leighton will need rest at some point. The Islanders, who bring up the rear of the division, could be a good spot for Boucher.

Boucher hasn't started a game since Dec. 21, the same game in which Leighton made his first appearance with the Flyers after Boucher cut his finger on a shot. Boucher made his first appearance since Jan. 3 last week in Florida. He was tagged with the loss despite not being responsible for five of the Flyers' seven goals against.

"Certainly I'd like to get in there and get a start," Boucher said. "It's better to be doing what I'm doing here than being the No. 3 guy [behind Leighton and Ray Emery]. When you're an athlete, you like to compete and be a part of some games. It makes you feel good.

"Hopefully that'll happen soon. Coming [into a game] in relief is not an ideal situation."

Slap shots

Forward Simon Gagne was the only player to miss practice yesterday. He was given a day off for "maintenance" . . . Peter Laviolette is expected to rejoin the team today . . . The Flyers will not have a morning skate today . . . Defenseman Oskars Bartulis was activated from the injured reserve, giving the Flyers seven defensemen, 14 forwards and two goalies.

On ice

BY THE NUMBERS

4: Number of goals for Simon Gagne in his last four games, compared to six goals in his first 35 games this season.

6-1-1: Flyers' record since Feb. 8.

38: Number of goals Jeff Carter is projected to finish with. Carter has 30 goals in 64 games, including eight in his last eight games. He posted a career-high 46 last season.

96 percent: Chance the Flyers make the playoffs, according to PlayoffStatus.com.

THE WEEK AHEAD:

vs. New York Islanders, Tonight, 7:30, Versus

Note the time change for tonight's game, which was moved to 7:30 to accommodate national coverage on Versus. The Carolina Hurricanes' surge from the deep has slowly pushed the Islanders down to 14th place in the Eastern Conference. Still, with 60 points, the Isles are just nine points out of the final playoff spot. But New York has lost two in a row and is 3-7-0 in itsr last 10 games. The Flyers are 4-0-0 against the Islanders this season.

vs. Boston, Thursday, 7 o'clock, CSN

Thursday is the Flyers' last game against the Bruins in the regular season. Right now, the Bruins - last year's No. 1 seed from the East - hold a scant, two-point lead on the eighth spot. The Rangers, Atlanta and Tampa Bay are all within four points. Now, with scorer Marc Savard out of the lineup indefinitely with a concussion, the hill is a lot tougher for the B's to climb if they want to stay in the race.

vs. Chicago, Saturday, 1 o'clock, CSN

The Blackhawks - and Predators, who are on the docket next week - are the only remaining teams the Flyers have not faced this season. As such, Saturday is the only chance for Flyers fans to see the potential Western Conference champions. With Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews combining for 129 points alone, it promises to be a high-scoring affair. Chicago is third overall in the NHL with 91 points.

at New York Rangers, Sunday, 3 o'clock, CSN

Today, the Rangers are on the outside looking in at the Eastern Conference playoff race. Sunday is the Flyers' first return to Madison Square Garden since they put a 6-0 hurting on the Blueshirts on Dec. 30. That's also the start of another four-game road swing for the Flyers, through Nashville, Dallas and Atlanta.

Send e-mail to seravaf@phillynews.com.

For more news and analysis, read Frank Seravalli's blog, Frequent Flyers, at http://go.philly.com/frequentflyers.