Chris Pronger returns to Anaheim’s lineup for Game 5 of the NHL’s championship series on Wednesday night after sitting out his second one-game suspension of this post-season for hits to opponents’ heads, and don’t expect a meek performance from a player ready to change his ways.
He’s been tough as nails throughout his career, and he says he’s going to continue playing the same way.
“I’m not going to be worried about anything,” Pronger said after practice Tuesday. “I’m just going to worry about my opponents and what they’re doing when they’re coming at me.
“You don’t have time to think out there. You have to react and do what you’ve been doing – for me that’s the last 14 years (in the NHL) and since I was five – playing hockey. You have to do what you do best . . . and everything will fall into place.”
It was excruciating to miss his team’s 3-2 Game 4 win Monday, he said. He watched on a TV adjacent to his team’s dressing room in Ottawa.
“You always want to play,” he said. “It’s never easy sitting out.”
Anaheim has been victorious in 12 one-goal games this post-season.
“There’s a couple of things,” Pronger replied when asked why close games are to the Ducks what steak is to a hungry dog. “Obviously, great goaltending plays a huge factor in that.
“Secondly, it’s the will in the locker room, the will of the guys to push forward, and continue to know somebody in this locker room is going to be the hero and get the job done. In very close games, we always feel like we’re going to win.”
With three days’ rest, Pronger will be rarin’ to go.
He should feel blessed he’ll get the chance. His latest suspension was the seventh of his career from the league, and he got one game – and this at a time when it is being stressed that hits to the head will not be tolerated.
Colin Campbell, the NHL’s director of operations, explained in deciding on the penalty that “the final round is a difficult round to take any player out of.” That’s like a multiple-offending drunk driver getting a light sentence because it was New Year’s Eve.
Regardless, the Ducks are pumped because he’ll be back on the ice. They won without him, and now they get him back for what could be the Cup-clinching game.
He’s a player with a nasty edge – some simply call him dirty, at least that’s his reputation in cities around the league – and he makes no apologies for it.
His boyhood mates called him “Chaos” because of the mayhem he created when he lost his temper.
“I was a bit of a hellion, a little crazy as a kid,” he’s said. “I still am at times. I have to watch myself.”
He still loses his temper at times during games, and he takes it out on opponents. He’s the guy you hate to play against but love to have on your team.
He’s been notorious since emerging from the OHL’s Peterborough Petes into his rookie pro season, when he and some Hartford Whalers teammates got into a brawl after a game in Buffalo. Later that season, he was arrested for drunk driving.
He soon earned the nickname Captain Crunch for his smashing body checks. His six-foot-six frame has given him incredible reach, he reads plays with the best of them, and he quarterbacks power plays with skill few can match.
In 1998, in the playoffs with the Blues against Detroit, he took a puck to the chest and his heart changed rhythm. He was carried off the ice on a stretcher
He returned better than ever. He was named best defenceman and overall league MVP in 2000. The Blues made the playoffs each of the nine seasons he was with them, and haven’t made the cut since he left.
A three-time Olympian, Pronger helped Canada win Olympic gold in 2002.
Moving to Edmonton for 2005-2006 after signing a US$31-million, five-year contract with the Oilers, he got within one win of earning his first Stanley Cup ring. He was the first player to score on a penalty shot in the championship series.
Then he requested a trade out of Alberta, enraging Oilers fans who had to then watch their team fall out of playoff contention.
Now, he’s got his best chance yet of sipping champagne from the Stanley Cup. It’ll happen if the Ducks don’t blow it.
“We can’t change the way we play because of the implications of the game,” he said. “We’ve got to come out and compete and make sure this is our best game of the series.”
He and his Oilers teammates were in the shoes one year ago that the Ottawa Senators now wear, and those Oilers won Games 5 and 6. Pronger expects Ducks captain Scott Niedermayer, who was on three championship New Jersey teams, will be a calming influence that will help them sip from the Cup.
“There’s a number of us who have been on the losing end and we obviously want to be on the end where Scotty has been able to taste it three times,” said Pronger.
He’s not expecting a pep talk from the only man in the lineup with Stanley Cup rings.
“There’s not much left to be said,” Pronger said. “We all realize what’s at stake, what’s sitting in front of us.
“It’s going to take a big effort. It’s not going to be easy. He’s not much of a rah-rah kind of guy to begin with. If something needs to be said, he’ll say it, but it’ll be business as usual unless something out of the ordinary comes up.”
If something out of the ordinary does come up, Pronger will more likely than not be in the middle of it.