WHAT'S PERSONAL is personal, unless it affects the professional.

The play of Scott Hartnell over the past month improved markedly over his disappointing regular season.

Why?

Well, he joined a line with Danny Briere and Ville Leino.

Also, after he was benched for most of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Bruins, Hartnell had a heart-to-heart with coach Peter Laviolette.

And . . .

"There's many things. I don't know if I can go there," said chronically honest linemate Briere. "There's a lot of issues that sometimes people have to go through."

Briere didn't specify Hartnell's issues. Neither did Hartnell. It was clear, however, that the issues had less to do with Hartnell's skating than with his head.

Laviolette declined to talk about how Hartnell, in particular, dealt with his off-ice issues. So did other team officials.

But nobody denied that off-ice issues existed. And everyone agreed that he has dealt with them better, and, as a result, he has played better.

"It's my life. Some people are different handling [things] different ways: emotionally, physically, or whatever," Hartnell said. "It's been a difficult, ah, little go of it this season. It's all passed, and behind me now. It's time to focus on hockey."

That was part of Laviolette's message to Hartnell when they met last month.

"He needed more from me, personally," Hartnell said. "I knew I had more to give. It was a weird meeting for me, to say the least."

Weird, in part, because Laviolette let Hartnell know this:

"That when you come to the rink, everything else has got to be pushed aside," Hartnell said. "I realized, kind of, what's at stake. Right now hockey, obviously, is No. 1 in my life."

That's to the benefit of the Flyers, and the hodgepodge line centered by Briere, sparked by Leino and enforced by Hartnell.

Entering Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals tonight at the Wachovia Center, the Flyers trail the Chicago Blackhawks, 2-1. But they are coming off a 4-3 overtime win in Game 3 in which Hartnell played a big role.

Hartnell scored only 14 goals in the regular season. Dating back into the regular season, he was scoreless for 21 straight games before he connected in Game 5 of the second round - the second game after the meeting with Laviolette. He was ferocious in Game 4, too.

Of his 13 playoff points, 11 have come in the 12 games since his meeting with Laviolette. His goal and assist led the Flyers to their win in Game 3 on Wednesday. His goal and two assists helped the Flyers keep pace in the opener Saturday.

He has not been alone.

Briere has scored 15 points in those 12 games; Leino, 13.

Their play has been a revelation, all the more so because the Flyers' top line has gone stagnant and it has come against the Blackhawks' featured line.

"They're playing really loose. Things are clicking for them," said Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, who centers for Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien - who have combined for four points and a minus-6 rating in the finals. "We just need to be a little more aware, because they're supporting each other, they're working hard. Obviously, you watch the way they're playing, they're working hard to create plays. They're also taking advantage of their opportunities."

Said Hartnell: "I don't know if we match up [well] against them, but we've been playing mostly in their end. The best defense is a great offense."

Clearly, he relishes having turned upside down the plans of Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville: "I think Quenneville maybe wanted that matchup at the beginning of the series,'' Hartnell said. "I don't know if he's rethinking that now."

Quenneville hardly could be blamed for targeting them. This was not how Laviolette configured the Flyers' attack entering the postseason.

"[We were] what was left, I guess," Briere said. "Ville had been a [playoff] scratch. I had played wing for most of the year. Scottie had a lot of struggles. So, we were three guys searching for themselves at that point. But sometimes chemistry is a weird thing."

They were three guys in need of focus, perhaps; none so much as Hartnell. The playoffs, with its finite endpoint, afforded Hartnell an easier target than the ebb and flow of the endless regular season.

"It's a lot easier about focus and motivation right now than it is in Game 47," Laviolette said.

Especially for Hartnell, whose game isn't fancy.

"My game's pretty simple: going to the net, banging and crashing. We complement each other pretty well," Hartnell said. "Hopefully, we stay hot and keep on scoring. We're having the time of our lives right now."

This year, that wasn't always the case - at least, not for Hartnell.