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Devils know they will see plenty of Pronger

by Mike G. Morreale
NEWARK, N.J. -- There was a calculated method to the madness last June when Philadelphia Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren sent Joffrey Lupul, Luca Sbisa and two first-round draft picks to Anaheim in exchange for veteran defenseman Chris Pronger.

And the New Jersey Devils are about to find out.

The Devils and Flyers face-off in Game 1 of their anticipated Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Round series on Wednesday (7:30 p.m., TSN) and in Pronger, the Flyers have, perhaps, the most intimidating presence along the blue line among any of the participants in the Stanley Cup Playoffs this spring. Dare we say, a Scott Stevens-type presence?

"Pronger is a big guy and strong skater and he's tough to play against and it's a great challenge," said Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk, who will no doubt be matched against Pronger for much of this series.

One other Devils' forward sure to see plenty of Pronger is Zach Parise. Parise finished with 2 goals, 4 points and a minus-2 rating in five games against the Flyers in the regular season.

"He's a big guy, good in the defensive zone and he's got a long reach," Parise said. "He makes a difference for them out there, so we just have to make sure we're making it hard on him. We have to get the puck in behind him and not allow him to stand up (in retrieving the puck) -- we have to make it a tough night for him."

When asked if intimidation would play a factor in this series, especially since the Flyers won five of the six regular-games this season, Parise didn't think so.

"No, not really, I don't think so," he said. "I don't think anyone in here is really intimidated."

"Us? Intimidated? No," added Kovalchuk.

Still, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette knows the importance of having his 6-foot-6, 220-pound defender on the ice in the critical stages of games and against many of the top skaters. Pronger, 35, finished fifth in ice time (25:55) this season.

"Pronger is a steady defenseman who plays an aggressive game and, certainly, he draws the attention of the other team," Laviolette said. "I don't expect them to back down because Chris Pronger is on the ice but, in saying that, we'll put him out there in all of those situations."

Laviolette refused to tip his hand as to which defensive pairings would be locked down on the top two units for the Devils following his club's morning skate at the Prudential Center Wednesday. On the flipside to that, Devils coach Jacques Lemaire continued to mix and match his line combinations throughout the morning so there's no telling which players will make up those lines.
"Pronger's had a terrific year for us and his last game he seemed to ratchet up his physical play a little bit and I'm sure he'll play that same style in the playoffs," Laviolette said.

Pronger received the Bobby Clarke Trophy as the team MVP and Barry Ashbee Trophy as the team's most outstanding defenseman this season. He's produced 10 goals, 55 points, 104 hits and 189 blocked shots in 82 games for the Flyers this season.

Lemaire, an assistant coach of Pronger's on Team Canada at the Olympic Games in February, knows the challenges he presents. He feels Pronger has gotten better with age.

"He's one of the best defensive players although he's considered an offensive-defenseman, he's a great defensive player," Lemaire said. "He's good around the net and knows all the types of plays coming to him and can react well to it.

"He's a guy who moves the puck well and has good shot," he continued. "Maybe his speed dropped a little bit, but it doesn't affect him because he's so smart. When you get older, you get smarter as a player. This guy has gotten smarter so he doesn't need the speed he had before."

Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner said the best way to attack Pronger is by making him move and fetching the puck as often as possible.

"You've got to take it to him a little bit and make it hard on him," Langenbrunner said. "You try and put the puck into his corner and make him have to work. He's got a long reach and is extremely dangerous from the front of the net. You have to make him kind of go into the corner."

Pronger's defensive partner all season, Matt Carle, is grateful to have one of the League's toughest defenders by his side.

"It's been a great opportunity to play with him all year and every day, I think of it as an opportunity suiting up with a potential Hall of Famer," said Carle, the recipient of the Pelle Lindbergh Memorial as the most improved Flyer this season.

"He's added a certain composure to my game and I feel I've become more aggressive defensively," he said. "He's played a part in my making reads on rushes and being a better all-around player."

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