Anyone who doubted Chris Pronger's importance to the Philadelphia Flyers only needed to watch Games 6 and 7 of their first-round Stanley Cup Playoff series against the Buffalo Sabres.
Pronger missed the first five games recovering from surgery to repair a broken right hand. In that time the Flyers were shut out twice, shuffled through three goaltenders, went 2-for-26 on the power play and fell into a 3-2 series deficit.
The big defenseman's return for Game 6, however, changed all that. Despite Pronger playing just 4:33, all on the power play, the Flyers were able to stay alive in the series with a 4-3 overtime win. The dormant power play scored once on five chances and nearly got another one, but Scott Hartnell's game-tying third-period goal came four seconds after a Buffalo penalty expired.
And in Game 7, the power play scored on its first two opportunities, with Pronger picking up an assist on the second extra-man goal.
"He (Pronger) makes terrific plays," Laviolette said of Pronger's impact on the power play. "Whether they are big plays or little plays, sometimes you don't even notice them. Just his presence back there and his shot opens up other things. He looked really strong in all situations."
"I think he helped us settle down," Danny Briere added. "It was also something that we started talking about after Game 5. We realized that we were forcing too many plays instead of controlling the puck and taking the shots. I think early in the series you start pressing. You miss four, five, six, seven, it keeps building and you start pressing. Then the crowd gets on us and you start taking bad shots. After Game 5 we started talking about just controlling the play a little more. Chris was coming back and obviously that's what he does so well. He's good at holding on to the puck and making the right play, the right decision, so he definitely helped us settle down in Games 6 and 7."
Pronger tried to deflect the praise, claiming it was just a case of the team finally cashing in after so many chances.
"We were due," he said.
Pronger also was due for more ice time in Game 7, playing 17:27 and seeing time at even strength as well as the power play. He set the tone early, taking the game's first shot, and while he didn't kill penalties, he still managed to block a team-high five shots.
"We had a plan in place," Laviolette said. "That was the plan. There is no disguise to it because the minutes show exactly what happened. In his first game back it was just power-play minutes to get him back in the game with shooting the puck and trying to help the power play in any way that he can. We dressed seven defensemen just to back it up. After that game, we sent him back on the ice where he got more competitive in practice and that was a controlled environment where we could see what he was able and capable of doing. Through conversations with Chris, he came back and was able to give us 'X' amount of minutes."
It's a plan Pronger was on board with.
"I really didn't do a whole lot in Game 6 other than the power play, so it was a good test and you gain a little bit of comfort," he said. "I think as the series progresses and as you go through the rehab, therapy and all the rest of that, eventually you hit a point where you get tested and (Game 7) was that night."
Pronger was sporting an ice bag on his right hand -- as well as on both knees -- but said he felt OK physically.
"It feels all right," he said of his hand. "I'm sure it'll be sore tomorrow, but when isn't it?"
Pronger originally broke his hand Feb. 26, and when rehab didn't work, a fracture was discovered and he had surgery March 14. He was shooting pucks two weeks later, but had a setback that kept him out of the lineup until Game 6. Pronger didn't even practice with the team until the morning of Game 3 in Buffalo. And while he played well the last two games, it's obvious he isn't feeling good enough to shoot the puck very much -- he had just one shot in each of the two games.
However, Pronger's biggest impact just might have been lacing up his skates on game night.
"It's nice to have his presence in the room," goalie Brian Boucher said following Game 6. "He's a leader. Guys respect him in this room. To have him out there just for five minutes and have him on bench and have him chirping out there, it's good."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK