Chris Pronger’s Comeback Starts Here

Maybe the Flyers have the Blackhawks right where they want them

The horn was still sounding to signal the end of Sunday’s fifth game of the Stanley Cup final, when Ben Eager added the final indignity to the worst night of Chris Pronger’s professional life.

He picked up the puck.

There would be no chance for the big Flyers defenseman to trash the rubber disc, as he had after the first two United Center losses by his team, and symbolically bury the defeat. Eager had it, and Pronger was left only with the lingering stench of a minus-five performance in a 7-4 to-the-brink loss. Afterward, Pronger tried his best to make us believe the ugliness was already behind him. [SIGNUP]

“I don’t remember anything,” Pronger said.

Chicago fans believe the amnesia is the result of the hit Pronger absorbed by Dustin Byfuglien during the second period that was so loud the barflys at Rush and Division Streets actually looked up from their Old Styles to detect the disturbance’s source. In a game that had plenty of highlights for the home side, Byfuglien’s hit stood out, if only for its cathartic value. Before Sunday, the burly Blackhawk had been quiet. Two goals and a bunch of teeth-rattling hits later, he was fairly screaming.

Meanwhile, Pronger was, well, Pronger. When you’re on the ice for six of a rival’s seven goals – and in the penalty box for the seventh – you shouldn’t call too much attention to yourself. But what’s he supposed to do, hide out? That’s impossible. Pronger has been cast as the villain in this series, and the best bad guys don’t run when things get tough. They just twirl their mustache (figuratively in the cleanly shorn Pronger’s case) and plot their next move. “I’m day-to-day with hurt feelings,” he said after the game, flashing his trademark sarcasm.

After spending four games making Chicago’s top line of Byfuglien, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews look like a fourth-string checking outfit, Pronger was revealed as human. Credit Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville for dispersing the three stars to other trios, the better to keep Pronger away from all of them. He can’t play every minute of the game, can he? As a result, Byfuglien broke out with a two goal, two-assist game, and even Kane got into the scorebook with a goal and an assist. Chicago fans, who for some reason need to be reminded that they are in “The Madhouse on Madison,” even though denizens of the original asylum – Chicago Stadium – needed no such prompting, were delighted. Not only had their heroes come through, but Pronger had been the prime victim of the assault. Talk about delicious. What was next, a clean local politics?

Wednesday night, the teams reconvene in Philadelphia, with a twist. The Cup will be on hand for the first time, polished by a white-gloved minion who forgets the thing has been in strip clubs, swimming pools and Lord-Stanley-knows where else during post-title celebrations. One more win, and the Blackhawks will get the chance to celebrate the end of a championship drought that has dragged on longer than the combined ages of Kane and Toews, yet not even half as long as the Cubs’ futility.

The Flyers must change a lot if they want to prevent those festivities on their home ice. Coach Peter Laviolette must decide whether he wants to start Michael Leighton, who gave up three goals on 13 shots, or Brian Boucher, who surrendered three on 14. (The finale was an empty-net job.) He must concoct a way to counter Quenneville’s unbundling of his stars. And he has to figure out why his team, which had shown so much spirit and tenacity in its previous games against the Hawks – and everybody else in the post-season – was outhit and outskated. The last one should be easy, and it might not even require the insertion of human keg of dynamite Danny Carcillo into the lineup. The Flyers will definitely come to play in front of the home crowd, and don’t be surprised if Kane or Toews absorbs a nasty board-rattler early on, just to set the tone.

The goalie question isn’t so easy. If Leighton was indeed struck by a puck on his knee during warmups, as post-game comments indicated, then he gets a pass and should start, provided he’s healthy. He bounced back from his yanking during game one to play well two nights later. Benching him for game six could upset him and render his useless should Boucher struggle. Starting Leighton gives Laviolette the ability to stick with the guy who got him to this point while keeping Boucher in reserve – where he has been since his injury – and ready to go. Finally, having the final change in game six should allow Laviolette to manipulate the matchups more to his advantage and make maximum use of Pronger.

As for Pronger, don’t worry about him. He didn’t get the puck, but he has 169 post-season games of experience, and one clunker won’t derail the Flyers’ blue-line express. Besides, he likes the spot his team is in.

“We seem to like to make things difficult on ourselves, so this is no different,” he said afterward.

Cue the comeback. And look out for Number 20 Wednesday night.


* Eleven runs in two games? Holy hitting orgy, Batman! Are the Phillies back? Not until the middle of their lineup starts producing.

* The Marlin Jackson injury is a tragedy for the defensive back, but it’s another example of how the Eagles try to fix problems with maybes and ifs. He was an injury risk from the moment he signed, and now the safety position is muddled again.

* No matter how much you think you hate soccer, watch the World Cup. Enjoy the nationalistic pride of the teams and the crazy customs of fans. It’s worth your time.