Inside the Flyers: Flyers' top four defensemen have played well in Pronger's absence

Posted: March 27, 2011

With Chris Pronger sidelined because of a hand injury, the Flyers' top four defensemen have been forced to play more minutes.

More minutes doesn't always translate into more production.

In the Flyers' case, it has.

Surprisingly, the Flyers entered Saturday with a slightly higher points percentage without Pronger in the lineup than with him.

Minus the likely Hall of Famer, the Flyers are a commendable 13-5-5, a .674 points percentage. They are 31-14-5 with him (.670).

That's a tribute to the defense, especially Andrej Meszaros, Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen, and Matt Carle, the current Core Four.

"They've all contributed. Not only minutes, but good minutes," general manager Paul Holmgren said. "They've all stepped up."

Of that group, Meszaros has been the most pleasant surprise.

He had a miserable season in Tampa Bay last year (17 points, minus-14) and was acquired for a second-round 2012 draft selection on July 1. The Flyers hoped he would regain the form he displayed as an Ottawa rookie in 2005-06 (39 points, plus-34).

Not only has he done that, but he has emerged as the Flyers' top all-around defenseman.

Despite playing most of the season on the Flyers' third defensive pairing with Sean O'Donnell, Meszaros has put up solid numbers (25 points, plus-26 entering Saturday). His game has blossomed since Pronger was sidelined, allowing the 6-foot-2, 218-pound Slovakia native to get more playing time and assume more responsibility.

Meszaros, who has played six NHL seasons but is only 25, is a physical player with a powerful shot, great skating ability, and a willingness to throw his body in front of opponents shots.

In recent games, Meszaros, paired with Carle, has thrived. Meszaros, who was plus-6 in his last five games before Saturday's meeting with the Islanders, was arguably the best player on the ice in a 3-2 shootout win in Dallas on March 19, setting up two goals and playing a season-high 28 minutes, 22 seconds - and showing why he has a plus-20 rating in road games this season.

On Tuesday, he played a season-high 29 minutes, took 10 shots, had a game-high six hits, and blocked five shots in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Washington Capitals.

Two nights later, in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Penguins, Meszaros again was dominating. He registered a game-high eight hits - for the season, he is second on the team behind Darroll Powe in that category - blocked three shots, and showed his offensive ability by skating out front and coming close on a pair of good scoring chances.

Pronger's injury will keep the 36-year-old fresh for the playoffs, where he annually raises his game to a level few achieve. His absence has especially benefited Meszaros and Coburn (plus-13), giving them more duties and showing that they, too, can be elite defensemen.

"The more time I play, the more confidence I get," Coburn said.

Meszaros agreed.

Carle (plus-26) and Timonen (plus-14), steady performers all season, also have played admirably in Pronger's absence.

The four defensemen are a combined plus-79, the second-best of any NHL quartet. (Boston has four defensemen who are a combined plus-91, but the Bruins' Tim Thomas prevents a lot of "minuses" with his spectacular goaltending.) When you add Pronger (plus-7) and O'Donnell (plus-5) to the mix, the six defensemen are plus-91, which is also second in the league, behind the Bruins' plus-100.

The Flyers are hoping Pronger returns for the last few regular-season games. Assuming he is at full strength, it will give the Flyers a defensive corps most of the league will envy.

There has been a lot of concern among Flyers fans in recent weeks because of some inconsistent play by Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher, goalies who have been very good for most of the season.

The Flyers don't have enough goaltending to win the Stanley Cup has been a popular refrain lately, turning the region into Panicadelphia.

But when Pronger returns to an already-deep defense, the goalies don't have to resemble Bernie Parent for the team to make a serious run at its first Cup since 1975.


Contact staff writer Sam Carchidi at scarchidi@phillynews.com.

Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/BroadStBull

 

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