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"No. From Da Da."
If the language was not kindergarten-approved, the boy's assessment was hardly baseless through four games. His old man had neutralized the 257-pound Byfuglien, Pronger's medicine ball and chain. But then Pronger also had been tormenting Toews and forcing Kane to take a circuitous route to prime scoring areas. The Pronger Effect: In the third period of the Flyers' 5--3 Game 4 win, coach Joel Quenneville split up Byfuglien's linemates to get them away from Pronger. Toews, at least, had been making a tangible contribution with a superb 67.0 face-off percentage—his lone assist through the first four games of the series had come without Pronger on the ice—but Byfuglien, who had scored three game-winners in the conference finals, had just six shots and one assist. Big Buff had been reduced to a puddle of tallow, at least on the odd times he had managed to plant himself in front of the Flyers' net.
"The biggest thing I noticed watching the Vancouver and San Jose series is they just let him get there," Pronger said. "A big guy like that, you got to make him work every inch of the ice."
Byfuglien seemed so cowed that instead of throwing a remember-me check in the second period of Game 4 when Pronger was in a vulnerable position at the intersection of the boards and blue line, he discreetly fished for the puck in Pronger's skates, using his CCM the way a man might poke around with a broom to reach a quarter that has rolled under the couch. (Circumspection is not considered an attractive hockey trait.) Of course in the same period, Pronger didn't hesitate to pinch and lay a lick on Byfuglien, even at the risk of giving up a three-on-one had the puck slithered into the neutral zone. (It didn't.) "You can't be worried about [Pronger] all the time," Kane says, "because it'll just mess up your game." The classic way to attack Pronger, a left shot who plays the right side, is to dump the puck softly into his corner, force him to turn and gather it on his backhand, then pound him like a veal cutlet. But the Hawks were not making a 35-year-old defenseman, averaging 30:03 minutes per game, pay a price. Pronger, who finished Game 4 a +4 and was on the ice for all five Flyers goals, wasn't even being obliged to reach for his wallet, much less the puck. The scamp on his lap was not Pronger's only child. He also looked like the Blackhawks' Da Da.
"He's a good player," Blackhawks center Patrick Sharp conceded before Game 5. "He's one of the best of all time, I guess you can say."
That was for public consumption. Internally, Chicago was fulminating about the latitude the referees were affording Pronger, particularly an uncalled chop to Marian Hossa's foot in Game 4 that propelled the winger toward the boards with 50 seconds left in a one-goal match. "Sometimes you think it's a for-sure penalty with the ref standing 10 feet away from him," Kane says. "But there's no call." Through four games Pronger had been whistled for just one minor penalty, high-sticking in Game 3.
Of course his most heralded clutching and grabbing had come just after the final siren. In an ode to puerility, Pronger began to claim the puck after every match—including losses. This schoolyard business attracted headlines after the Blackhawks' Game 2 win when Chicago left wing Ben Eager publicly objected to Pronger absconding with the puck, comments that followed an end-of-game, on-ice burlesque highlighted by Pronger wristing a balled-up red towel that struck Eager. Pronger saw subsequent references to his "stealing" the puck, a description that apparently left him in high dudgeon, although with hockey's Tower of Sour, you never know. Pronger often speaks with a nod and a wink, a smile and a sneer. His press conferences during the finals were performance art, sardonic and ruminative and wildly entertaining. Clearly Pronger enjoys jousting with media members, some of whom find him prickly. (And that's giving him the benefit of a couple of letters.)
"I picked up the puck," he says. "I didn't steal the puck. I picked up the puck. So you can go into your NHL rule book, and where in there does it show that it's stealing. Anyone on the ice can take a puck. It's the property of the National Hockey League, and I am part of the National Hockey League. So it's fair game."
This is the quintessential Pronger, stealing thunder if not pucks. Laperrière says it is no coincidence Pronger has been in the finals three times with three different teams in the past five years "because he makes everybody better around him by his composure on the ice." In 2006 he dragged the undermanned Oilers to a Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. The following year he was a critical component of the champion Ducks. Now in his first season as a Flyer, he is the Philly fulcrum.