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Flyers' top four on D coming up big

by John Dellapina
PHILADELPHIA -- In Game 1, they were Keystone Kops. But then, so was just about everybody on either side charged with any sort of defensive role.

Ever since, the Philadelphia Flyers' big four defensemen -- it often seems as if they are the Flyers' only  four defensemen -- have performed with precision.

Chicago's lack of discipline? Clearly a factor. The out-of-this-world offense for Philly from Daniel Briere and the out-of-nowhere production from Ville Leino and Claude Giroux? Significant reasons as well. Michael Leighton's ability to bounce back from his series-opening clunker and the ensuing uncertainty about whether he had lost his starting job? Key.

But if you're looking for explanations for how the Flyers turned a 2-0 deficit coming from Chicago into a best-of-3 for the Stanley Cup going back there, look no further than Chris Pronger, Matt Carle, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn. If you're looking for the guys who enabled the Flyers on Friday night in Game 4 to withstand as forceful an attack as the Blackhawks have mounted all series, look no further than those four.

"They've been great," Philadelphia captain Mike Richards said after a rollicking 5-3 victory at the Wachovia Center that squared the series at two victories apiece. "Prongs obviously logs a lot of minutes. Kimmo flies under the radar a lot in his defensive efforts. Coby, Matty Carle, can't say enough about them. They are playing well.

"Tonight, when we turned pucks over, I thought they were very good at keeping (Chicago) to the outside. Obviously, clearing people in front of the net is a big thing too.

"Defense, all year, I think has been our strong point when we've been winning hockey games. They definitely are lately."

This was going to be the night that the real Blackhawks -- the marauders who overran 100-point teams Nashville, Vancouver and San Jose in the first three rounds -- finally showed up in this Final. The night when their sputtering top line of Dustin Byfuglien, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane finally got back to playing the overwhelming hockey that had made them the far and away best line of the playoffs through the first three rounds.

When the Toews trio spent its entire second shift of the game whirling, wheeling and winning battles during a siege in the Flyers' zone, it looked for all the world as if the long-awaited onslaught was on. But the Flyers weathered that battle by allowing just an in-tight shot by Toews that Leighton blockered aside.

That just might have been the last clean whack at a rebound the Hawks got all night. Oh, there were plenty of pucks available in the Philly slot -- and several sat there in front of yawning cages with Leighton out of position after having made an initial save or reacted to a first shot that never got through.

Pronger, Carle, Timonen and Coburn simply would not permit the Blackhawks to pump any of those pucks home. They either won those loose pucks outright or got their sticks or bodies in the way to repel the put-back attempts.

Timonen was credited with five blocked shots in the game. Carle and Coburn had four apiece. Pronger, the slacker, had three. That makes 16 Chicago shots that got pretty close to the Philadelphia net but never made it all the way through to Leighton.

"We didn't allow too many high-quality chances," Pronger said. "We needed to defend the slot and the front of our net. And we did a good job of that. And when Leights was called upon, he made the saves and did a good job of protecting the rebounds."

When Leighton did not control the rebounds, his defensemen were there -- as Coburn was when, his stick having been caught in traffic and knocked out of his hands, he dropped to his knees and gloved a loose puck out of the slot with 1:40 remaining and Chicago pressing furiously for the tying goal that would have completed a third-period comeback from a 4-1 deficit.

"The puck came out of the corner and my stick was … I don't know where it was, behind me or in front of me," Coburn said. "The shot came and I knew the rebound was going to sort of come to the side. So I tried to do my best job to block it out with my big skates, and thank God it went beside the net there."

What with his witty sparring with reporters in press conferences after battling with Byfuglien and Co. for endless minutes each night, Pronger has been described as something of a deity in this series. But with Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette daring to deploy his fifth and sixth defensemen only sparingly, Carle, Timonen and Coburn have had to be superhuman as well. 

In Game 4, Pronger's 27:51 of ice time actually was eclipsed by Coburn's 27:52. Timonen played 26:59 and Carle logged 24:35.

"I feel great," Coburn said. "And I think if you talk to those guys, we're all handling it pretty good."

"They've been great. Prongs obviously logs a lot of minutes. Kimmo flies under the radar a lot in his defensive efforts. Coby, Matty Carle, can't say enough about them. They are playing well."
-- Flyers captain Mike Richards

But how about the unyielding pressure of having to play every other shift with so much on the line and each mistake potentially season-wrecking? Perhaps it will finally take its toll in Game 5 or 6 or 7.

Carle and Timonen even jumped into the offense Wednesday night. Carle snuck deep into the Chicago zone to intercept a Niklas Hjalmarsson pass and pump it home late in the first period. Timonen joined a rush and then coolly zipped a pass to Giroux for the key goal with 37 seconds left in the first that restored Philly's early lead to two goals.

"We've been having to play this way for, I don't know how many weeks now, but it's June," Coburn said of a defense that has been under the gun since the final weeks of the regular season, when merely making the playoffs came down to a season-finale shootout. "We've got guys like Kimmo and Pronger who play calm and composed.

"It doesn't matter what time of the game it is, they're always playing like that. And that's good for everyone else. It kind of rubs off and they set a good tempo for everybody."

If pied piper Pronger and Timonen are setting the tempo, their respective partners, Carle and Coburn, have kept the beat beautifully.

"Every team we have played, they (Pronger and Carle) seem to have shut down their top guys," Briere said. "They're doing a good job. We can't forget that Chicago has a lot of firepower and their other line with (Marian) Hossa and (Patrick) Sharp is very dangerous as well. And Coburn and Timonen are doing a great job on them."

From Keystone Kops to keys to victory in the course of a week.

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