In the culmination of an incredible series that saw two shutouts, two overtime games and four different starting goaltenders, the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers met for Game 7 on Tuesday night. And as the Flyers finally looked like a No. 2 seed in their dominant, series-clinching, 5-2 win over the Sabres, it was an enormous player and playoff mainstay who made all the difference.
Despite notching a few shifts of ice time in Philly’s Game 6 victory Sunday, defenseman Chris Pronger had little effect on the game, his first of the series after he missed 21 games after surgery on his broken right hand. But Pronger was one of Game 7’s headlines as the Flyers eliminated the Sabres.
“I really didn’t do a whole lot in Game 6 other than the power play,” Pronger said. “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. Despite outshooting Buffalo 16-2, the Flyers found themselves up only 1-0 after one period of play. With the memories of Sabres goalie Ryan Miller shutting them out 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-foot-6 defenseman with the No. 20 on his back who spurred them.
Pronger’s presence on the team’s power play was sorely missed in the first five games of the series, and his return was even more telling on Game 7’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. Earlier in the series, the Flyers might have struggled with the man advantage. With Pronger on the ice, that wasn’t in the plans.
Danny Briere, who scored the Flyers’ second goal, was clear about the impact that the future Hall of Famer had on the team’s power play.
“I think he helped us settle down,” Briere said. “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 6 and 7.”
And while many were puzzled by 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,” Laviolette said. “In [Game 6], 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 7 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, Buffalo can attest to that.