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Sam Donnellon: Flyers' Pronger making his presence felt on blue line

NEWARK, N.J. - The goalie is the same and the style is similar, too. There is talent there, too, or the New Jersey Devils would not have finished second in the Eastern Conference or placed more players on Olympic teams in Vancouver than the Flyers did.

NEWARK, N.J. - The goalie is the same and the style is similar, too. There is talent there, too, or the New Jersey Devils would not have finished second in the Eastern Conference or placed more players on Olympic teams in Vancouver than the Flyers did.

So how do we explain this season? How do we explain six wins in seven tries for the orange and black over the team that once stood in its way to the Stanley Cup finals almost annually?

Four words come to mind.

Scott Stevens.

Chris Pronger.

Now 46 and a Devils assistant, Stevens' last full season ended in 2003. New Jersey won the Stanley Cup that year. They have been bounced in the first round in three of the five seasons since, including last year's upset loss to Carolina.

That's not only due to the retirement of Stevens. The Devils had an older blue line that disappeared at about the same time. And as Pronger, now the anchor of the Flyers' defense, noted yesterday: "The game changed on them. You've got to remember that. All the hooking and holding, the ugly style of hockey that they played. Marty [Brodeur] getting out there and playing every single puck, because he could go to the corner to get it. And they had a lot of older guys at the back end."

But Stevens was a presence, a presence that manifested into a team personality. Like Pronger, he wasn't actually on the ice all the time - it just seemed that way. Pronger played 30 minutes, 1 second in the Flyers' Game 1 victory on Wednesday, took yesterday's practice off, and declared, "I feel pretty good today," as he basked in the midafternoon Newark sun.

"He's been doing this for a long time," Devils coach Jacques Lemaire was saying. Lemaire was one of the Team Canada coaches, responsible for team defense. Given the breakneck speed of Olympic hockey, Pronger was supposed to be little more than a power-play specialist in Vancouver.

He ended up averaging 20 minutes, ended up playing the late parts of close games.

"I don't know what it takes to wear him down," Lemaire said.

A bad flu, maybe. Certainly not the Devils, who too often treated Pronger like a live skunk in Game 1. Once, when New Jersey forward Zach Parise hung around the crease a tad too long, Pronger separated him from his helmet, a nod to Stevens' style if ever there was.

Mostly, though, the 35-year-old Pronger acts as a threat, a warning, a no-fly zone. He's justly proud of his health and conditioning, but his extensive ice time is more an offshoot of his experience. As Lemaire noted, there is little waste in his play - again, much like Stevens.

And like Stevens, Pronger ratchets it up this time of the year. The toughness. The meanness.

The, well, hugeness.

Pronger is 6-6. It's been like this his entire career, but he still looks like a dad playing among his kids out there. That is, if the dad had a mean streak.

"When you play 30 minutes, it means you're covering two different lines," Danny Briere said after practice yesterday. "You play a team like Boston and you have Zdeno Chara in your face all night long. It gets old pretty fast. You have six forwards on the other team saying, 'I had Pronger in my face all night long.' It gets old. Maybe not in Game 1 or Game 2, but when you come down to Game 5 or Game 6, that's when you see it pay off."

That's the hope, anyway.

"I think you can look too much into that sometimes," Pronger said. "You look at the games we played with them, a lot were close."

Counting Wednesday, four were decided by a single goal. A single play, a lurch, a second effort, a big hit. It was that way back in Stevens' day, too. It's about setting tone, creating a personality. Stevens made his team seem tougher to play this time of the year. Pronger has had that affect in other places, and it seems in this rivalry too.

At least so far.

"I try not to put too much stock in 'owning' teams," Pronger said. "You say we own New Jersey. Well, they own [Pittsburgh]. And Pitt owns us. It was the same thing in St. Louis. We owned Chicago. They always played well against Detroit. And Detroit somehow always found a way to beat us.

"Why is that? There's no rhyme or reason."

Send e-mail to donnels@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/donnellon.

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