Did Chris Pronger blow his chance for the playoff MVP award with one bad night in Game 5? Okay so it was a really miserable night on both a personal and a team level, one that prompted him to say “Thanks for reminding me” to a reporter who rattled off his stats after it was over.
Until Philadelphia’s pivotal loss in Chicago, the big Flyers defenseman had generally been considered the frontrunner for the Conn Smythe Trophy regardless of whether his team ends up as Stanley Cup champions. There is historical precedent for awarding the individual prize to a member of the losing team after all. In fact the award has gone to a member of the losing team five times, and two of them -- Reggie Leach in 1976 and Ron Hextall in 1987 – were with the Flyers. So there would be a strong case to be made on behalf of Pronger even if Philadelphia fails to pull off another comeback.
Pronger really has been that good throughout the playoffs and certainly he has been the most dominant individual force in the Final. Equally important, he has consistently been the best and most entertaining quote, a factor not to be dismissed since the voting will be done by writers.
Still all bets are off after Game 5 when the Blackhawks developed a strategy to counteract Pronger’s impact by splitting their top unit over three lines. The result was a 7-4 Chicago win over Philadelphia, with Pronger being on the ice for six Blackhawks goals and in the penalty box for the seventh. Overall Pronger was minus-5 on the night, although his coach insisted that was a result of a collective, rather than an individual failing.
“When we're successful, we do it as team, when we lose and we have a night that's tougher, we do it as a team,” Peter Laviolette said. “The minus 5's, are they all (Pronger’s) fault? No. The whole group needs to be better.”
Of course Philadelphia can still turn this series around, because, well, that’s what the Flyers tend to do when their backs are against the wall. By now you are certainly well aware of the Philadelphia story of adversity reversal that began with its shootout on the final day to get into the playoffs and progressed into a recovery from a 3-0 series deficit against Boston in which it trailed 3-0 in Game 7. And if the Flyers manage to rebound again against Chicago, which will require winning the finale in the Windy City, Game 5 will be forgotten and Pronger’s name will be front and center when it comes time to vote for the playoff MVP.
But there are other candidates from the Flyers who should be in the running if they do win. And obviously there will be some from the Blackhawks if they managed to capture hockey’s biggest prize.
Here’s a look at who they are likely to be:
Duncan Keith: He is likely to win the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman and he has continued to be a dominant force along the blue line in the post season. Keith has been playing about 28 minutes a game, he kills penalties, quarterbacks the power play and triggers the quick breakouts that made Chicago effective. And Keith is fourth on the team in scoring.
Jonathan Toews: Much like Pronger, the 22-year-old Chicago captain was a frontrunner, and arguably the leading Smythe candidate coming into the Final after leading all playoff scorers through the first three rounds. Toews has lost much of his luster in this series in large part because Pronger was so effective in shutting him and his linemates down for the first four games, although Toews still tops the scoring chart. But he has contributed in several other ways and his leadership on a young team cannot be underestimated.
Dustin Byfuglien: Byfuglien is Chicago’s top physical force and made life miserable for opposing goalies through the first three rounds with his net presence, but he also managed to come up with several big goals. The much-anticipated mano-a-mano matchup with Pronger didn’t materialize in the first four games of the series, but Byfuglien erupted in Game 5 when he flattened Pronger with one of his nine hits and had two goals including the winner. He has five game winners in the post season.
Danny Briere: The little center with the big chip on his shoulder has finally given the Flyers their money’s worth for the big contract they gave him a couple of years back. Briere was moved back to his natural center position when Jeff Carter was hurt, and he has anchored what has been the best line for Philadelphia and arguably anyone throughout the playoffs. He is second in playoff scoring overall with 27 points and his 11 goals include four game winners.
Mike Richards: Much like Toews, the Flyers captain has been a heart-and-soul type of leader for the Flyers, not to mention one of their most productive players. He’s kept his focus squarely on the big prize despite having to face the media almost every day and playing in more than 110 games this season, counting pre-season and the Olympics, and has 23 points, including a couple of the most memorable goals of the playoffs.
Darkhorse candidates: Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux and Ville Leino; Chicago’s Dave Bolland and Antti Niemi.