PHILADELPHIA – Chris Pronger wore his usual relaxed manner and impish grin when he faced the media on Tuesday, as though the ugly numbers he put up in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final never happened.
The Flyers defenceman was probably right to insist he didn’t play that badly, despite going minus-5 and being on the ice for six of the Chicago Blackhawks’ seven goals in a 7-4 victory that put the Flyers on the brink of elimination. On the other goal, he was in the penalty box.
One went in off his leg, another was blocked by his leg but went right to an opponent for a pass and a goal, another saw goalie Michael Leighton beat on a long shot that no defenceman could prevent.
So instead of dwelling on it, he’s looking for the entire Philadelphia team to bounce back with a strong effort at home in Game 6 on Wednesday (CBC, 8 p.m. ET) to try to force a decisive seventh game in Chicago two nights later. The Blackhawks lead the best-of-seven series 3-2.
“I’ve already started to focus on Game 6 and I’m not really worried about it,” Pronger said of the Game 5 debacle, in which the speedy Blackhawks skated rings around the Flyers through the first period, then got timely goals as Philadelphia battled back.
“I don’t know if you’ve watched much of the video but I have. There’s not a whole lot you can do when a puck bounces off your shin pad and goes in the net—a couple of times. So I’m not worried. It could easily have gone the other way.”
It usually does in Philadelphia, where the Flyers are 9-1 in the post-season.
And if Pronger, one of the NHL’s nastiest rearguards around his own net, wants any extra motivation, he need only pick up Tuesday’s Chicago Tribune, which ran a mock poster of him wearing a female figure skater’s skirt under the headline: “Chrissy Pronger. Looks like Tarzan, skates like Jane.”
“Next question,” he said when asked for his reaction. “I really couldn’t care to be honest. I’m worried about playing the game.”
White-gloved NHL officials will have the Cup in the Wachovia Centre ready to be presented to the Blackhawks if they win. That’s motivation enough for the 35-year-old Pronger.
“I think we know what we’re up against,” he said. “They’re trying to close us out and we’re trying to get to a Game 7.
“Everyone in the locker-room understands what’s a stake and what we need to do.”
This Flyers team has done it before, erasing a 3-0 deficit to beat the Boston Bruins in seven games in the second round. And Pronger has been there before, including 2006, when he played for Edmonton and the Oilers roared back from 3-1 in the final to force a seventh game, although that ended with a Carolina victory.
The Hurricanes’ coach at the time was Peter Laviolette, who now coaches the Flyers. He recalls an especially one-sided Game 6 loss to the Oilers.
“It was nauseating,” he said. “I went back to the hotel room in Edmonton and I almost threw up.”
But they did not give up, as their Cup-clinching comeback performance in Game 7 showed.
“You keep fighting,” he said. “One thing this (Philadelphia) team really has proven is that they’re capable of fighting.”
The Blackhawks, who will be seeking the first away win by either team in the series, certainly expect Pronger to come back strong.
“We know he’ll come back and be better,” said Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. “That why he’s such a good player and has had such a successful career.
“He’s not going to dwell on that game. This series isn’t over and he knows that. We worked all series to try to get on him and some of their top players and that won’t change. We’ll try to be just as hard on him as we were last game.”
The Flyers have been a resilient bunch in the playoffs and believe they can do it again.
Unlike the Blackhawks, who shuffled their top three lines for Game 5 after losing twice in Philadelphia, the Flyers practised with the same four units they’ve had from the start.
And Laviolette, normally guarded about any roster changes, ended any debate over who will start in goal by giving a public nod to Leighton.
Leighton was pulled from Game 5 after allowing three first-periods goals. He wasalso pulled in Game 1 in Chicago in favour of Brian Boucher.
“Our goaltender has the best numbers in the playoffs, I didn’t think I’d have to announce it,” said Laviolette. “I’m very confident in Michael.
“He’s played excellent in the playoffs, especially at home. His numbers are terrific.”
At home, Leighton is 6-0 and has allowed only nine goals.
Overall, Leighton is 8-2 and has the NHL’s best post-season goals-against average of 2.34 in 13 games. He also has a strong .918 save percentage.
“It seems we’ve let the goaltending down on the road in a few instances,” said Laviolette.
They’ll have to be all the things Laviollete wants—hungrier, tougher, smarter—to keep hopes alive for a first Cup since 1975 against a Chicago team that at times has played at an overwhelming pace.
The Blackhawks, for their part, are looking for a first Cup since Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and other legends won it in 1961.
Toews and his teammates have been trying not to think about it too much.
“Any kid growing up in Canada or anywhere they play hockey, that’s the dream,” said Toews. “You kind of know in your heart you’re going to do it some day.
“Last year watching the Pittsburgh Penguins come from behind and win it last year, that’s when it first set in, when I felt our team and myself personally never felt closer, thinking this is an opportunity that can become a reality. It’s been a long year. We knew all along we could make it this far and hopefully we can find a way to do it.”
The Blackhawks closed out their first two series this year on the road in Game 6, first against Nashville, then Vancouver, before sweeping San Jose in the Western Conference final.