The Flyers tried to remain positive after learning veteran Chris Pronger, the leader of their defense, underwent surgery on his right foot Friday and will miss four to six weeks.

"He's a force back there. He's a big body," winger Scott Hartnell said after Friday's practice in Voorhees. "He plays the power play, the penalty kill, and plays a lot of minutes. We'll miss him, but that's why you have depth in the lineup. Guys will step in and play big minutes."

"He's a guy you don't want to be too long without, but these things are going to happen," said defenseman Sean O'Donnell, one of Pronger's closest friends. "We're going to need him in the spring and, hopefully, into June, so this may be a blessing in disguise to kind of give him some rest and let us pick up the slack for a little bit."

When the Flyers host the New York Rangers on Saturday afternoon, Oskars Bartulis will be in the lineup for the first time since Nov. 1. He has played just three games, including the season's first two, when Pronger was still rehabbing from knee surgery.

Andrej Meszaros, who leads the NHL with a plus-21 rating, will shift to a duo with Matt Carle, Pronger's defensive partner. The Kimmo Timonen-Braydon Coburn pairing will remain intact, and Bartulis will join O'Donnell.

Meszaros and O'Donnell (plus-18) had formed the league's most effective third pairing.

Pronger, 36, had surgery to repair the first metatarsal in his right foot. He suffered the injury while blocking a shot during Wednesday's 5-3 win in Montreal.

"Obviously he's a big piece missing, but one of the good things is that the other five guys have been playing 18 to 22 minutes a night, so it's not like anybody has to start playing 30 minutes now," center Danny Briere said. "Bart will have to adapt a little bit because he hasn't played much, but we have five guys playing big minutes already and playing in all situations. I expect us to be in good shape still."

The Flyers, tops in the NHL with 47 points, are in a stretch in which they play just two games in a 12-day span. Pronger will miss between 11 and 17 games. He seemed a cinch to make his seventh all-star team, but he may not be able to play in the Jan. 30 contest in Raleigh, N.C.

Based on Jeff Carter's experience with a broken foot, it seems Pronger will likely be out for closer to six weeks.

Carter broke the second metatarsal in his right foot, suffering the injury when he inadvertently blocked Pronger's shot, during last season's conference quarterfinals against New Jersey. Carter returned 41/2 weeks later and faced Montreal in the conference finals. "I wasn't anywhere close to 100 percent," Carter said on Friday.

Meszaros and O'Donnell had developed a great chemistry, but they will now have new partners.

"It doesn't really matter who I play with. I just want to play good and do my thing and help the team win games," Meszaros said. "It's not that different because me and Matty are playing together on the power play. Obviously, when you play 30-some games with one guy and then have another guy, it's a little different, but I don't think it'll be a problem."

Pronger's point spot on the power play probably will be taken by Mike Richards, who had been playing up front. That will open a forward spot for someone like Nik Zherdev.

Pronger, who plays against teams' top-scoring lines, had been rounding into form after missing training camp because he was rehabbing his knee. He is tied for the team scoring lead among defensemen (15 points), has blocked a team-high 75 shots, and is second with an average time on ice of 22 minutes, 20 seconds per game.

"You can't replace a guy like Chris, but I think we can perform admirably and step in kind of by committee until he's back," O'Donnell said.

"It'll be tough, not only for what he means to the hockey team on the ice, but in the dressing room, too," Richards said. "But injuries happen all over the league and we'll have to learn to deal with it."

And try to find a way to remain atop the Atlantic Division and the NHL's point standings.