O Pronger, where art thou?
It is the question the Flyers will be asking themselves all offseason if Chris Pronger, their most intimidating player, does not swoop in from the injured list and lead the team to two wins against the Buffalo Sabres.
Maybe the Flyers would be facing Easter elimination even if the 6-foot-6 defenseman had been available for the whole series. Maybe the Sabres would have been just as chippy, just as aggressive, with Pronger's sharp tongue and sharper elbows policing the ice. Maybe.
There are probably a hundred factors at play, but there's no denying this: Since Pronger's last game, on March 8, the Flyers have played 21 hockey games.
They have won eight. They have lost 13. Along the way, they lost their grip on the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, misplaced their mojo, and got pushed to the brink of playoff elimination.
Maybe Pronger's absence was just coincidental. And maybe Brian Boucher played like Patrick Roy on Friday night.
(Aside: It has to be Boucher for Game 6. Has to be.)
It doesn't help that the original three-to-four-week timetable for Pronger's recovery from surgery to repair a broken bone in his hand made it seem certain he would be back for the playoffs. This is hockey. Players get their limbs super-glued back on to play for the Stanley Cup. Throughout this first-round series, it was part of the running story line: Would Pronger be back for Game 1? Game 2? How about Game 3 or 4?
It hasn't helped matters that general manager Paul Holmgren and coach Peter Laviolette treat injuries as if they are some kind of state secret. All that posturing and mumbling and declining to comment really has snookered the Sabres. They're so confused and uncertain about Pronger's status, they can barely stop knocking Flyers around like Mites on Ice.
All the Jason Bourne nonsense has done is create an atmosphere of uncertainty and unfulfilled expectation in the Flyers and their fans. Sure, the players have a better handle on Pronger's status than the public or the media do, but the constant speculation about Pronger's return has to be unsettling.
It's hard to imagine the NFL being the model when it comes to informing its fans, but teams are obligated to announce injuries and player status. There is none of this absurdity about lower-body injuries.
Friday afternoon, it looked certain. Pronger had been practicing for a few days with the team, had taken some slapshots. All the arcane hockey protocols indicated he was ready. But he did not dress for Game 5, and the Flyers took the ice for that must-win game with no jump in their stride.
Coincidental? Maybe, and maybe Boucher played like Bernie Parent that night.
It is true that Pronger does not play goal, but his reassuring presence makes goalies better. The absence of his booming shot from the point has not helped the Flyers' pathetic power play. But it may be in his role as intimidator and agent provocateur that Pronger is missed the most.
The big guy gets under people's skin. That includes opponents and teammates as well. He is like Chase Utley with the Phillies or Brian Dawkins when he was with the Eagles - a peer that other players don't want calling them out for giving less than their all.
Game 6 wouldn't be a bad time for Pronger to ride into town on his horse. The Flyers are no strangers to elimination games. They faced four of them in that unforgettable series against Boston a year ago, and won all four.
"You can always draw on experiences," Laviolette said Saturday. "I wouldn't want to bank on it. This team has to make their own mark. They have an opportunity [Sunday] to fight back. It's their first shot at it. Through the course of a long run, you have to do that. You're going to get tested as a group. [Game 6] is our first test."
Laviolette doesn't want to bank on last year's experience because this isn't exactly the same team. Simon Gagne was the single biggest offensive factor during that epic comeback against the Bruins. The longtime Flyer was shown the door last summer, replaced by the enigmatic Nikolay Zherdev.
This team is arguably deeper up front and along the blue line. Danny Briere, Claude Giroux, and the emerging James van Riemsdyk are playing superb hockey. The defense has been mostly solid in front of the goalie-go-round.
The missing element is Pronger. Andrej Meszaros and Braydon Coburn may be handling his minutes ably, but no one on the ice has the presence of the big man.
Is that an excuse for this team to tumble from best record in the East to second seed to first-round elimination? No. The Flyers should be able to beat the seventh-seeded Sabres without Pronger.
Thing is, they're not.