CHICAGO - The blueprint game was on March 13 at the Wachovia Center, Game No. 1,006 on the NHL calendar, Blackhawks at Flyers. It shows how Flyers coach Peter Laviolette deployed defenseman Chris Pronger with the benefit of the last line change. It shows how the Flyers can win this series.
The Blackhawks' center, captain and best forward, Jonathan Toews, skated 25 shifts that night. Pronger was on the ice for the better part of 22 of them. Toews had only two shots that night. Pronger was on the ice for neither of them. The Flyers won, 3-2. Pronger scored the game-winning goal.
Things will be more complicated than this, certainly. But 22 of the Blackhawks' 53 postseason goals are concentrated on one line. The ability of the Flyers to get Pronger out on the ice against that top line - likely to be Toews centering between Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien - is the foundation upon which they can build an upset in the Stanley Cup finals that begin tonight at the United Center.
Notice the form of the verb: can build, not will build. Because Pronger could be as successful in this round at tying up the opponents' top scoring threats as he was in the first three rounds and it still might not be enough. There are a lot of moving parts here, after all, including a Blackhawks power play that can be reasonably scary, and including the fact that Laviolette will not always be able to get the matchup he wants on the road.
Still, Pronger is the center of the question. If he cannot hold Toews and the boys down, it is hard to construct a scenario in which the Flyers can pull this off. It is their ticket for admission, as it were - their ticket to hope.
Anyway, you ask Pronger about all of this on the eve of Game 1 and he does what he typically does, neither agree completely nor disagree.
"I don't know," Pronger said. "You could probably look at their last series and say that their top line and San Jose's top line cancel each other out, and it boils down to the other three lines. You can look at it any number of different ways.
"We're going to need balanced scoring from all four lines, everyone to chip in. That's how we win hockey games. We need our big guys to play well, absolutely. This time of year, your big guys need to shine. But you need your third- and fourth-line guys to play very well. They need to do their job, but, on top of that, chip in and score some big goals for you or stop big goals from the other time.
"It takes a total team effort," he said. "It's not one or two guys to win the series. We need to play very well top to bottom."
Even as he avoids the main issue, Pronger is right. The Flyers need to turn this into a battle of the second, third and fourth lines, if possible, and they need to stay out of the penalty box. It is not a guarantee, and there are questions - for instance, the Flyers' second line (Danny Briere-Scott Hartnell-Ville Leino) quieted down noticeably in the last few games of the previous series against Montreal. Still, it would appear to remain as their best option.
The history of the sport is full of such series, in which the top lines are tied up and the issue is settled by others. In this case, Pronger against the Toews line and the top Chicago defense pair of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook against the Mike Richards-Simon Gagne-Jeff Carter line has that kind of death-struggle potential.
And, well, we'll see. Just know that Pronger is in the middle of it all. He has won a Cup before, won Olympic gold before. He was asked yesterday which was more rewarding. Everybody knew the answer already.
"I think the Stanley Cup, just because of the longevity of the season," Pronger said. "The length of time, from the time training camp starts, all the way through to the end of the year to finals - it's almost 10 months, and summer months is training and preparing for that season, [so] it's a whole calendar year.
"And it takes a lot of effort and a lot of mental and physical pain, turmoil and all the rest of that stuff to get it done. The playoffs become a whole other entity and battle of attrition, and there's injuries and momentum swings, and all the rest of that. So it's a tale of two seasons, really."
Starting tonight, Pronger will be one of the main storytellers. He must be one of the best players on the ice or the Flyers will not have a chance. *
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