For the better part of a week, Chris Pronger
had the Chicago forwards, particularly Dustin Byfuglien
, living a nightmare in the Stanley Cup Final.
Virtually every time Pronger was on the ice in the first four games -- which was every other shift, it seemed -- he hit, harassed and often humiliated Byfuglien or one of his first-line partners in crime, Patrick Kane
or Jonathan Toews
Sunday night, though, the Blackhawks turned the tables in a 7-4 Game 5 victory that puts Chicago within a victory of the team's first Stanley Cup since 1961. Pronger was on the ice for six of Chicago's goals and in the penalty box for the other one.
Certainly, the minus-5 performance in the biggest game of the season for Philadelphia's top defenseman will not go into the career retrospective.
"Thanks for the Green Jacket," Pronger, referencing the prize for winning golf's Masters tournament, told a reporter audacious enough to bring up his minus-5 rating in the post-game scrum. "Real nice of you; I appreciate that."
Utterly ineffective in the first four games, Byfuglien was Sunday night's first star, scoring 2 goals -- including the game-winner -- and adding 2 assists, to become Pronger's bogeyman.
That role reversal might have been the biggest highlight of what will go down as one of the more memorable hockey games in the long and storied history of this Blackhawk franchise.
The sellout crowd at the United Center delighted in Pronger's every misfortune. The patrons booed each time he touched the puck. They were ecstatic when Pronger took a hooking penalty against Kane late in the second period and absolutely delirious when Byfuglien scored on the ensuing power play to make it a 5-2 game.
Blackhawks fans reveled in the misery of Public Enemy No. 1 -- the Windy City's hockey version of Al Capone, it seems -- almost as much as they reveled in a critical victory that leaves the city on the precipice of ending a 49-year Stanley Cup drought.
Yet through it all, Pronger remained steadfast in his game. He played 28:37 on Sunday night, fighting through all the bad breaks and misfortune that came his way. He never changed, never shrank from the battle -- not even when Byfuglien deposited Pronger on his rear end with a thunderous hit in the second period -- and never let the Hawks know they were getting the best of him on this night.
"Sometimes you are on the ice when a team scores," said Kimmo Timonen
, another Philadelphia defenseman. "I don't think you can blame any of those goals because of his play. There were five guys out there and it's a team effort. We just have to be better."
While all the Flyers have to be better, Pronger was the poster boy of what went horribly wrong Sunday. Nobody else on the team was out there for six goals. Amazingly, only three other Philadelphia players were worse than a minus-1 on the night.
Yet, despite his very public embarrassment, Pronger's defiance continued well after the Flyers beat a hasty retreat into the sanctuary of their dressing room. While his teammates tended to their wounded pride and tried to figure out exactly what went wrong on this night, Pronger remained confident in his abilities.
"I'm day-to-day with hurt feelings," Pronger said sarcastically when asked about the rough ride he received from the Hawks and their fans Sunday night.
How quickly will he be able to put one of the worst nights of his career in the rear-view mirror?
"Real quickly; it's already gone," Pronger said. "I don't remember anything."
Actually, Pronger remembers how much fun Byfuglien seemed to be having during his breakout performance Sunday night. It clearly did not sit well with Pronger, who much preferred the frustrated and ineffective Byfuglien from earlier in the series.
"I don't think you can blame any of those goals because of his play. There were five guys out there and it's a team effort. We just have to be better." -- Kimmo Timonen on Chris Pronger's play
"I guess he is well-rested," Pronger said, bringing into focus that Byfuglien had been harassed into submission in the first four games.
It is that bravado that has served Pronger so well during a career that already has earned him a Stanley Cup and will one day deliver him to the Hockey Hall of Fame. He refuses to concede anything to an opponent and will battle until the hostilities are brought to an official ceasefire.
"The guy is a true pro," said goalie Brian Boucher
, who was summoned to stem the tide after starter Michael Leighton
allowed three first-period goals. "Everybody has nights that don't go their way. If anyone is worried about Chris Pronger
, then they have a problem. This guy, he'll be fine."
It is that bravado that virtually assures Pronger will be better when the Flyers' season is on the line Wednesday in Game 6 at the Wachovia Center (8 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS).
"We seem to like to make things difficult on ourselves, so this is no different," Pronger said, holding his head high as he returned to the dressing room, already preparing for the next battle -- one he believes will have a far different outcome.