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Buff-Pronger a big matchup in more ways than one

by Staff Writer / Chicago Blackhawks
CHICAGO -- Dustin Byfuglien has been the immovable object during the postseason. Chris Pronger will try his best to be the irresistible force during the Stanley Cup Final.

Byfuglien, the 6-foot-4, 257-pound forward of the Chicago Blackhawks, has wreaked havoc in front of the net during the past two rounds. Pronger, the 6-foot-6, 220-pound defenseman of the Philadelphia Flyers, will be tasked with chopping the big man down to size when they meet in Game 1 of the Cup Final on Saturday night at United Center (8 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS).

But as tough and physical as Pronger has been throughout his career, no one in the NHL possesses the sheer mass of Byfuglien. Perhaps using strategy instead of brawn is the way to go -- mind over matter, if you will.

"Once he's stopped and set up, for you to try to move him, you're kind of taking yourself out of the play," Pronger said. "Most of the time it's on the power play, so you're already down a man. If you start trying to engage him and trying to move him once he's planted, somebody's coming back door or somebody's opening up in the slot for something.

"Once he gets there, you almost have to leave him there and work around him."

The two figure to get to know each other pretty well over the next couple of weeks.

"They'll probably see a lot of each other," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "They both play a little different game. It will be a great test. Prongs is a smart player. Buff is not going to be easy to play against."

So far in the postseason, Byfuglien's biggest battles have come with Vancouver's Shane O'Brien and San Jose's Kent Huskins. Byfuglien said he's had it pretty "easy" setting up shop in front of the net during the playoffs, but he's expecting one of the biggest challenges of his career when he goes up against Pronger.

"It's probably going to be one of the bigger ones," Byfuglien said. "But for the most part, every series I've had a couple of guys that have been easy to work around. He's probably going to be the biggest problem out there. He's definitely got the experience and size. He's definitely smart. He's been around and knows how to handle situations."

Pronger offered his "resume" of big forwards he's battled during his career, including ex-Flyer John LeClair (6-3, 233) back in the day and the Bruins' Milan Lucic (6-4, 220) in the second round of this year's playoffs.

But few have been on a hot streak like Byfuglien is now.

He scored 4 goals -- 3 of them winners -- in four games against the San Jose Sharks in the West Finals. The 25-year-old from Minneapolis has 8 goals in 9 games since he was moved from defense to a forward line with stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane during the Blackhawks' second-round series against the Vancouver Canucks.

"I think Buff moved right back up as a forward seamlessly," Quenneville said. "It's a great option having him being able to go back in the blue line. I think him moving back up front, he's gotten to a different level."

Some critics have said Byfuglien is just reaping the benefits of playing with Kane and Toews, two of the game's better offensive talents. Toews is riding a franchise record 13-game point-scoring streak, but that streak was just four games long when Byfuglien joined his line.

Flyers coach Peter Laviolette isn't losing sight of Byfuglien's talents.

"As far as Byfuglien goes, we've got a lot of respect for what he does in front of the net," Laviolette said. "He's certainly proven he can score goals. I don't think he gets the attention that the other two get. He's probably not quite as flashy as those other two, but certainly effective in what he does."

When Flyers GM Paul Holmgren acquired Pronger from the Anaheim Ducks this past offseason, he wanted to add size and toughness to his blue line and someone who could shut down the top offensive threats in the Eastern Conference. Pronger didn't have to face stars Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby during this run to the Cup Final, but it's hard to imagine finding another defenseman in the NHL who's better suited to handling a player as big and as hot as Byfuglien.
"He did exactly what you hoped he'd do," forward Simon Gagne said of the acquisition of Pronger. "He brought the team to another level. Coming to Philadelphia was a big challenge for him and it is a credit to him.
"I remember when Paul Holmgren may the trade, -- you wondered if it was too much, two young players (Joffrey Lupul and Luca Sbisa) and two (first-round) draft picks. Now, you know why Paul Holmgren went after him and made the trade he did."
Age doesn't seem to have slowed Pronger.

"He is who he is because he gives your team a better chance to go far in the playoffs," teammate Ian Laperriere said. "He plays half the game out there and he is 35-years-old. (Sharks defenseman) Rob Blake said it a couple weeks ago; it’s not a coincidence that everywhere Chris goes, the team does better right away. He is one of a kind."
Whether it's an all-out war or a chess match in front of Flyers goaltender Michael Leighton, the matchup is one of the most intriguing during Stanley Cup Final. Will the brute strength of Byfuglien be too much? Or will the experience of Pronger, a future Hall of Famer, win out?

"I don't know. I really haven't got to deal with him too much before," Byfuglien said. "After Game 1, I'll let you know."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DLozoNHL

Author: Dave Lozo | Staff Writer

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