CHICAGO – Chris Pronger was just what the Philadelphia Flyers needed. Fearless and strong on the defensive end, he was a game-changer the Flyers hoped would make them a championship contender. They gave up two-first round picks in a trade to get him.
The Chicago Blackhawks liked Marian Hossa when they went free agent shopping in the off-season. A strong skater and scoring threat who could also play defence, they landed him with a big 12-year contract, figuring he would be a veteran influence on a young team with title hopes.
Some players spend their entire career chasing the Stanley Cup without ever having the chance to hoist it.
Pronger and Hossa have found their way back to the final again — Pronger for the third time in five years with his third different team. He was on a winner with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007 after losing as a member of the Edmonton Oilers the previous year.
“All you hear about is guys talking about it’s the toughest trophy in pro sports to win. There’s no question it is,” Pronger said Thursday after the Flyers arrived in Chicago dressed in matching orange hooded sweat shirts.
“The mental battles you face — being down in a series, momentum shifts, that stuff or the physical toll it takes on your body to play this many playoff games at this high a level at this style of play it’s very taxing,” he added.
“You have to be prepared for it to understand what it’s going to take. The abuse you’re going to put on your body to play 20, 27, 28 games, if you play four seven-game series.”
Hossa’s trek is even more rare. He’ll be playing in his third straight championship round with a different team. He’s lost his last two, first with the Penguins in 2008 and then last year as a member of the Red Wings when they fell to Pittsburgh and Sidney Crosby.
“Definitely want to touch the trophy,” Hossa said. “What you learn is that this is a great opportunity. Somebody will say you know it comes once in a lifetime and it comes three times for me. It didn’t work out two times and hopefully the third time will be the one. Just keep hoping and do the best you can.”
Hossa, whose contract is worth US$62.8 million, has managed only two goals in 16 playoffs games so far this year, but Chicago is 12-4 in the post-season and is in the finals for the first time since 1992.
A year ago, Hossa scored 40 goals for Detroit in the regular season but managed only six in 23 playoff games when he was fighting a shoulder injury that required surgery after he signed with Chicago.
“It does bug me because the puck doesn’t go in for me. Offensively obviously I’m not happy,” he said.
“It could be better definitely. But in other departments I’m trying to help the team defensively and try to play on the plus side. … Do what I can do and hopefully a bunch of goals go in.”
That is what Pronger will be trying to keep from happening. Perhaps he will be matched up against Hossa, who plays on a second line with Patrick Sharp and Troy Brouwer.
But the one confrontation that is being talked about most is seeing the six-foot-six, 220-pound Pronger go against Chicago’s six-foot-four, 257-pound Dustin Byfuglien, who has emerged as a star while playing on the Blackhawks’ top line with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
Byfuglien has eight playoff goals, including four game-winners.
“He’s definitely got the size and the experience and he’s smart,” Byfuglien said of the 35-year-old Pronger. “He’s been around and he knows how to handle situations. My work is going to be cut out for me.”
Pronger seemed to be amused by all the questions of the potential man-to-man confrontation with Byfuglien, who likes to park himself near the crease.
“What to expect? Wow. I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out,” Pronger said.
Asked if facing Byfuglien could be his biggest challenge during the Flyers’ remarkable run in the post-season, Pronger added: “I guess. I didn’t really look at it like that. You’re kind of putting me on the spot.”
Pronger, who spent eight seasons with the St. Louis Blues under current Chicago coach Joel Quenneville, signed a seven-year, $34.9-million contract extension not long after his trade from the Ducks to Philadelphia.
In addition to his rugged play at the blue-line, he’s also scored four goals and has 10 assists in the post-season.
“It was a lot we gave up for Chris Pronger. But we felt that at the time the impact player that Chris was and is and has been for our team this year, we believe it was worth it. And, you know, we’ll know more down the road here,” Flyers general Paul Holmgren said.
“But he’s a game-changer type player. That’s what we were looking for. And he’s brought that for us.”
The Blackhawks could use more scoring from Hossa but are satisfied with his ability to keep the puck while being defended and being an offensive threat that teams must address — even if his goals are down.
Certainly the 31-year-old Hossa knows what it’s like to play in the finals, and how painful it is to lose.
“Obviously, when you didn’t win, you kind of have the time during the summer to think about things,” he said. “I want to make sure we’re in a better finish this time.”