THE FLYERS HAVE four defensemen playing more than 24 minutes a game in the playoffs. Their opponent in the Stanley Cup finals, the Chicago Blackhawks, have one. Their opponent in the last round, the Montreal Canadiens, had none. With that, call the roll:
Chris Pronger. . . 28:48
Kimmo Timonen. . . 26:35
Matt Carle. . . 25:25
Braydon Coburn. . . 24:23
Through three rounds, this defense has not shown a sign of cracking, not for any sustained period of time. And while it is true that the Flyers have not yet played an opponent who scores at the same rate as the Blackhawks, it is probably fair to say that the Blackhawks have not yet faced as skilled and consistent a defensive foursome as the Flyers have presented this spring.
They have provided a health and a stability that the Flyers have never seemed to have been able to muster in recent postseasons. And while you can argue that the Flyers lean on them so heavily because they have concerns about Lukas Krajicek and Ryan Parent, it is just as easy to make the case that there is no need to take chances when the sure things have been so very sure.
Pronger, Timonen, Carle and Coburn - and the results speak for themselves. They are not the four horsemen, but the four horses.
"It's different than Game 51," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said the other day, explaining how the time on ice has evolved. "You're trying to play your very best on Game 51, but you can't get eliminated . . . You want to get the players out there that give you the best chance . . . "
In the last dozen Stanley Cup tournaments, only one finalist has relied this heavily on four defensemen: the 2004 Calgary Flames, who lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games. A few other finalists have had three defensemen play at least 24 minutes per game, including the 2007 Anaheim Ducks (Chris Pronger, proprietor). Many teams have had no 24-minute defensemen, though, including last year's Pittsburgh Penguins.
So what the Flyers are doing is not unprecedented, not nearly - but most teams still cannot pull it off. Each of the four is playing between 2 and 3 minutes more than during the regular season. The Flyers can do it mostly because Pronger is Pronger and because Timonen is such a steady pro, but also because Carle continues to flourish and because Coburn has suddenly rediscovered the promise of 2008.
"[An extra] 2 1/2 minutes for another four to seven games - at this point in the year, I don't think it matters that much," Laviolette said. "You know, Prongs plays a really efficient game out there. He's completely sure of himself. There's not a lot of wasted energy. I think that really helps him play those minutes . . .
"His 28 minutes might not burn up the same as somebody else's 22."
Pronger is the most unique, playing as much as he does at the age of 35. But they're all different, unique in their own ways.
From the top:
Pronger is the cornerstone. Enough has been written about him over the weeks and months that everything is pretty repetitious at this point. He is that good. He isn't as fast as he used to be, and you sometimes see players try to take him hard to the outside on the rush, but most of it is futile. Pronger's size and reach and skill with his stick nullify most everything - and his snarl in front of the net discourages most intruders.
His worst game of the spring might have been Game 3 in Montreal, when he was on the ice for four goals. His most impressive moment of the spring was in Game 4, after people had wondered in the newspapers if the minutes were catching up to him, when he was the best player on the ice in a 3-0 shutout.
Afterward, Pronger said, "Obviously, when you have a tough game, you want a rebound. That's the sign of a professional." It should go on his tombstone.
Timonen is understated cool. When you look at the two of them, Pronger seems to be about a foot taller than Timonen - but they play a remarkably similar game at this point in their careers. When you subtract the wayward elbows from Pronger's game - and they really are more legend than reality anymore - he and Timonen really are all about their positioning and their sticks. Also - and this is another Timonen strength - is the ability to size up a situation and make the right play a super-high percentage of the time.
Still, even when you have made the right mental assessment, you can make a physical error. This is where Timonen really stands out - partly because he makes so few errors but also because of his perspective when they are made. The former team captain in Nashville, the guy is a plain-spoken, soft-spoken leader - and his viewpoint on errors is simple, like an NFL cornerback.
"If there weren't any mistakes, there wouldn't be any goals, right?" he says. "It's how you react after."
Carle is the chosen one. The Hobey Baker Award is college hockey's Heisman, and Carle won it at the University of Denver in 2006. He has the great good fortune of playing next to Pronger, and it will forever be to his benefit, but Carle brings a strong skill set of his own - skating, good with the puck, a real fluidity. You watch him out there and he just looks like a player.
He says, "The more you get to play, the more comfortable you get," and it really has shown in his game this spring.
Coburn is the reawakening. If Pronger and Timonen are the real backbone guys - on the ice together, for instance, in the final stages of the series-clinching win against Montreal - this still cannot work without Coburn. He is playing so much better than he did for much of the regular season, and so much more calmly, that there is no need to keep him out of any situation.
He is a great skater, and now he is beginning to recapture the promise he showed in 2008. Here and now, Coburn is handling things fine; he led the team in ice time in that final game against Montreal, playing more than 30 minutes.
"Toward the end of the year, I think I started playing better," Coburn said. "As that goes, you realize that this is the time of the year when you want to try to be playing your best hockey. It's not one or two things. It's just coming to the rink, being prepared, getting your energy up and knowing what you're doing out there.
"I wasn't exactly thrilled with how my regular season went. But this is a new season. It's the playoffs, right? A new start for me, and kind of get 'er going."
It's the playoffs, right? If you aren't going to lean on your best now, when are you? *
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