After an incredible series that saw two shutouts, two overtime games and four different starting goaltenders, the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers met for game seven on Tuesday night. Finally, the Flyers showed that they were the second seeded team in the matchup with a dominating 5-2 victory. In the series-clinching win, the power play played an enormous role and it was an enormous player and playoff mainstay that made all the difference.
Despite notching a few shifts of ice time in Sunday’s game six victory, defenseman Chris Pronger had little effect on the game. After being less than an afterthought in the elimination game victory, Pronger would become one of game seven’s headlines.
“I really didn’t do a whole lot in game six other than the power play.” He explained. “…it was a good test and you gain a little bit of comfort. I think as the series progresses and as you go through the rehab, therapy, and all the rest of that, eventually you hit a point where you get tested and tonight was that night.”
If Tuesday was the test for Pronger and his teammates, they all passed with flying colors. In a blitzkrieg of shots, they found themselves up only 1-0 after one period of play, despite outshooting Buffalo 16-2. With the memories of Sabres’ goalie Ryan Miller shutting them down in two games this series fresh in their minds, the Flyers broke the game wide open in the second stanza. And to no one’s surprise, it was the 6’6 defenseman with the number 20 on his back that spurred them.
Pronger’s presence on the team’s power play was sorely missed in the first five games of the series, and that was even more evident in game seven’s second and third goals. Both tallies came from power play opportunities, with Pronger being on the ice in both instances. With those scores, the game turned from a dogfight into a laugher a little over halfway through. In the past, the Flyers would have most likely struggled with the man advantage and squandered opportunities to put Buffalo away. With Pronger on the ice, that wasn’t in the plans.
Danny Briere was clear about the impact that the future Hall of Famer has on the team’s man advantage.
““I think he helped us settle down,” Briere acknowledged. “It was also something that we started talking about after game 5. We realized that we were forcing too many plays instead of controlling the puck and taking the shots… Chris was coming back and obviously that’s what he does so well. He’s good at holding on to the puck and making the right play, the right decision, so he definitely helped us settle down in Games Six and Seven.”
And while many were puzzled to the secrecy of Pronger’s status for the playoffs, head coach Peter Laviolette was pushing the right buttons all along.
“We had a plan in place and…there is no disguise to it because the minutes show exactly what happened,” he said. “In [Game Six], it was just power play minutes to get him back in the game with shooting the puck and trying to help the power play in any way that he can. We dressed seven defensemen just to back it up. After that game, we sent him back on the ice where he got more competitive in practice and that was a controlled environment where we could see what he was able and capable of doing.”
As the Flyers move forward to the second round after their game seven triumph, one thing is clear: a healthy Pronger will go a long way in determining how much further they go. After seeing the difference in Philadelphia’s team with him in the lineup and without, Buffalo can now attest to that.