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Pronger's brilliance not enough to carry Flyers

by Shawn P. Roarke
PHILADELPHIA --  Even greatness has its limits.

Philadelphia defenseman Chris Pronger, the best player in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, appeared to have simply run out of gas.

After dominating Chicago for the first four games of the Stanley Cup Final -- reprising a role he had already played perfectly against New Jersey, Boston and Montreal -- the Flyers' big man was a shell of himself in the final two games of the Final.

In the Game 6 loss to Chicago on Wednesday night, Pronger took a pair of penalties in the first period and was in the box when Chicago's Dustin Byfuglien scored the game-opening goal in the first period. Three nights earlier, in a series-changing 7-4 loss at the United Center in Game 5, Pronger was minus-5 and on for six of the seven goals. He was in the box for the other.

Yet his struggles will only temporarily tarnish what has been an epic playoff performance -- one that clearly rivals, if not beats, his Cup-winning campaign with Anaheim in 2007 or his performance the year previous when he led the No. 8-seeded Edmonton Oilers to within a win of the most incredible Cup triumph of all time.  

Pronger played more than 650 minutes of hockey this spring in 23 games, an average of more than 29 minutes per contest. Only three players in the tournament topped 600 minutes, and neither Chicago's Duncan Keith nor Philadelphia's Kimmo Timonen were in the same neighborhood.

But that's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Pronger's workload. Since the start of training camp and including the 2010 Olympic Tournament -- where Pronger played a huge role for a Canada squad that took home gold -- Pronger played in 113 games.

By the way, did we mention Pronger also led all defensemen in postseason scoring with 18 points, one more than Chicago's Keith.

He was, without question, the Flyers' MVP this postseason.

In some quarters, he was the Conn Smythe winner -- despite the fact that Philadelphia lost the Stanley Cup Final in six games.

"Having Prongs in the lineup for us, it's a plus," Philadelphia's Simon Gagne said. "He's a leader. He's a guy that's going to play big minutes for us. He's going to be physical. We all know that.

Certainly, Pronger's opponents knew that. Each of the four opposing sides in this tournament had to game plan for the presence of Pronger. Few succeeded.

New Jersey's Zach Parise, one of the most dangerous scorers in the game, could not get rolling in the first round. Neither could trade-deadline acquisition Ilya Kovalchuk, who had just one goal in the Flyers' five-game upset. It was more of the same in the second round as Boston's top line never gained any traction in blowing a 3-0 series lead. In the East Final, Montreal sniper Michael Cammalleri managed a solitary goal in five games. He had scored a dozen in 14 games in the first two rounds.

Through it all, Pronger calmly went about his business. On the ice, he drove opponents to distraction, goading opposing forwards into retaliatory penalties and blunting wave after wave of offensive forays.

"Having Prongs in the lineup for us, it's a plus. He's a leader. He's a guy that's going to play big minutes for us. He's going to be physical. We all know that"
-- Simon Gagne

Off the ice, Pronger alternately sparred and played court jester with the media; not only entertaining -- or enraging -- hockey fans across the world, but keeping the heat off a team that had precious little familiarity with hockey's biggest stage. His press conferences became must-attend affairs, drawing the attention of the media hordes and allowing other players avoid potential inquisitions.

"You know, you have to try to keep things as light as possible in preparation for the game," Pronger says. "Obviously, once you come to 4:30, 5 o'clock for an 8 o'clock game, you have to start mentally being prepared and focused and ready to roll.

"But prior to that, I think it's important to stay as relaxed as you can and use the time that's been allotted to prepare and rest up for what's going to be a tough game."

That's the thing about the 35-year-old Pronger: He has learned a ton about what it means to be a hockey player. Today, he knows virtually every trick in the book. He knows how to play rough -- occasionally in a less-than-legal manner -- without costing his team. He knows how to take care of himself in order to handle the prodigious workload heaped upon him by his coaches, and he knows how to take the incredible highs on an even keel with the hellacious lows.

This postseason, he put on a clinic in those very subjects; a clinic that will long live in the hearts and minds of Flyers fans, as well as hockey fans in general.

"There's a side of professionalism that you get to see as a coach that you probably don't get to see unless you coach him and work with him," said Peter Laviolette, Pronger's coach. "(It's) the fact that he's always on time at the rink; he shows up and he does the right things, he says the right things. He practices as hard as he plays.

"He's a professional; he really is."

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