Pronger makes Flyers stronger in playoffs

Chris Pronger playfully covers a reporter's microphone during interview in Chicago.
Chris Pronger playfully covers a reporter's microphone during interview in Chicago.
Posted: May 28, 2010

CHICAGO - Last June 26, on draft day, the price seemed steep.

Paul Holmgren shipped fan favorite Joffrey Lupul, budding star Luca Sbisa, two first-round picks and a third-round pick to Anaheim for 34-year-old defenseman Chris Pronger.

Off the bat, Pronger was the next past-prime star for whom the Flyers overpaid. He was the next Paul Coffey, the next John Vanbiesbrouck, the next Adam Oates.

The trade jolted most of the Flyers to their core, losing a best friend in Lupul.

But it was also a testament. The trade was Holmgren's statement that Pronger was the missing link, that the Flyers are built to win the Stanley Cup now - not 5 years from now.

Until April 22, when the Flyers dispatched the Devils in the first round, it looked a bit foolish, a bit shortsighted. So many other things, Holmgren admitted, were missing.

No matter how many games Pronger played well - he put up 55 points, his most since 2007 - and no matter how many times Pronger said the right things after a loss, the Flyers looked like the same Flyers that coughed up home ice last season and lost in the first round.

And then something clicked.

"You could probably pick a couple different times, we were so up and down I don't think you could pick one part of the season that was any better than the rest,'' Pronger said. "We showed signs of starting to turn the corner and then for whatever reason we'd try to take a nap and lose a few.

"I think as the playoffs got closer, we started to come together as a team. The light bulb went off. Good things in life are never easy to come by. Everybody has to buy in, whether it's the guy playing 3 minutes or the guy playing 30. You all have to be on the same page and you all have to want it.''

Even at 35, Chris Pronger wants it more than anyone else. In the preseason, Pronger played almost 28 minutes a night. Tomorrow night, the puck will be dropped on his third Stanley Cup finals in five seasons, all three with different teams. All three came in the first year with that team.

Some would laugh. Call it a fluke. Call it a coincidence. But if you polled the Flyers' locker room, no player would say it's a coincidence that success follows Pronger.

"Coincidence? No," goaltender Michael Leighton said. "I wouldn't say he is the heart and soul of this team, because we have a lot of leaders. But he's done a lot for this team. He's a shut-down guy. He shuts down their top guy. You watch him block shots, and you might not see it as much as , but he blocks a lot of shots that are coming. That makes a big difference.

"There's no coincidence for him to be where we are now. He's one of the best defensemen in the league and he's showing it again now."

Said Flyers coach Peter Laviolette: "I don't believe in coincidences. I am a big believer that you are who you are in life. He gives a team those tough minutes in a defenseman that can play against the other team's best players, and then while playing them, has to be successful at it. Chris Pronger has done that consistently his entire career."

Pronger is the only Flyers player with a Stanley Cup ring. He is one of just two Flyers to compete in the Stanley Cup finals. Ville Leino played four games for Detroit last year against Pittsburgh.

Pronger is as extroverted and sardonic as they come, never short of opinions and never afraid to speak his mind when necessary. And he notices everything.

But when it comes time, tomorrow night - as the Flyers are sitting in their locker room - Pronger will only have so much to say. As snarly and cold as he can be, on-ice and off, he is also nurturing in a "tough-love" kind of way.

He knows there are only so many things he can pass on to his teammates without them experiencing it for themselves.

"It's no different than when I deal with my kids,'' Pronger said. "It doesn't matter how much you tell them, they're still going to want to go out and do it on their own. And make their own mistakes. We've been a team that needs to learn as we go. We have to have our own experiences. We've got to make our own mistakes.

"I just think we made them a lot earlier during the course of the regular season. We're not doing it as often here in the playoffs.''

Pronger will have to shoulder an even heavier load in the finals, and not just because of his experience.

He will be the man in charge of shutting down Dustin Byfuglien, the Blackhawks' 6-4, 257-pound monster who skates on the top line with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Byfuglien has enough game-winning goals (4) this postseason to win an entire round.

Pronger is going up against a coach in Joel Quenneville for whom he played over eight seasons in St. Louis. They know each other well.

"He's a big part of their team, a big part of their success," Quenneville said. "We know he's a special player. He's a smart player. His puck possession and playmaking is like a quality forward.

"[Byfuglien and Pronger] probably will see a lot of each other. We'll see a lot of 'Prongs.' Two big-bodied guys. You know where they're going to end up. That should be a great matchup, it will be a great test."

Pronger also will have to shoulder the weight of a city. He's used to that - having backed a country to an Olympic gold medal on home turf in February. Only three players have won a gold medal and the Stanley Cup in the same year.

In Philadelphia, he carries the weight of a city caught off-guard, not expecting to be focused on hockey in June. It's the weight of a franchise that has waited 35 years to sip from the chalice again. It's been 13 years since the Flyers earned the right to play for it.

Heavy is the crown Pronger wears on a daily basis, with a No. 20 on the back. Steep was the price. But 11 months after the damage, the price was right. The Stanley Cup finals follow him.

"A lot of people said we gave a lot with two first-round picks, Lupul and Sbisa, who is going to be a great defenseman,'' winger Simon Gagne said. "Chris already is a great defenseman. What a player. He is perfect for the playoffs."

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

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