Where has Jonathan Toews been? Patrick Kane? Anyone? As the Chicago Blackhawks and their fans begin to see what was a sure thing five days ago slip through their fingertips, Chris Pronger and the Philadelphia Flyers are embracing the chance of a lifetime (or in Pronger's case, the second).
The Flyers were within one shot of being down three games to nothing for the second time in these playoffs, and, considering they became just the third team to overcome such a deficit in the history of the National Hockey League in the second round against the Boston Bruins, there was little chance they would have been able to do the same again, especially not against the heavily favored Hawks.
Instead, Flyers forward Claude Giroux scored in that notorious game three to cut the series deficit to one game, and then the Flyers as a team tied the series on Friday night, following a spirited effort in game four.
It has been the ultimate of all turnarounds. Not only that, but the Flyers have both history and destiny on their side all of a sudden (or at least that's how it appears in the case of the latter). Since the lockout in 2004-2005, each Stanley Cup Final has started the exact same way, with the home team winning the first three games of the series. The team that has won game four in each year? Well, feel free to do the legwork if you aren't able to guess.
I'm not about to go back on my prediction that the Hawks will win the Cup (but I may have to rethink the bit about them winning in five games). I still think that they will pull it out, even if it takes seven games. The sheer fact that people (who aren't Flyers fans) are talking about a possible seventh game is a credit to the Flyers. I credit them for making games one and two as close as they were. I credit them for not giving up and dying in game three when Kane scored in the third period to give the Hawks a short-lived lead. Most of all, I credit Pronger for being the straw that has stirred Philly's drink all this time.
His puck-stealing escapades have been well-documented, so I won't go into the circumstances surrounding them, but it is clear that the resulting distraction was just what the Flyers needed to find a way to get back into the series after losing two hard-fought games. On the ice, however, even if you agree with the Hawks that he should be penalized more than the one minor he received in game three (not counting the game misconduct at the end of game two), there's little taking away from his three points and +/- +7 rating in the series. There's also little denying that he has meant more to the Flyers than any one Hawk has meant to Chicago.
Hawks captain Toews, who also leads the team and league in scoring with 27 points? He has just one assist in four games and is a +/- -3. Kane has one goal and two assists, but has a +/- -6 rating. Defenseman Duncan Keith is leading by example with five points in four games and a +/- +2 rating. However, is he really more valuable to his team than Pronger is to his? Doubtful. One look up and down the two line-ups will reveal a much deeper Hawks squad and one look at the four games' boxscores will reveal that the Hawks have only scored one power-play goal all series long, one area of play that Keith should be helping to improve. Only he isn't. Maybe, just maybe, Pronger, who logs big minutes on the penalty kill, is a big reason for that?
So, why not give the Conn Smythe Trophy to Pronger, however this series ends? Jean-Sebastien Giguere won it in 2003, despite his team losing to the New Jersey Devils (the Anaheim Mighty Ducks reaching the final in much the same way the Flyers have this year, as huge underdogs in several of their series). Four others have won it as a member of a losing team as well, including Flyer Reggie Leach in 1976. It seems kind of fate that Leach was the only non-goaltender to win it in a losing scenario. Maybe Pronger should do the same.
Of course, this is all assuming the Flyers end up losing the series. Even down two games to nothing, the series was much closer than many (including myself) anticipated. There have been three one-goal games in this series, and it seems oddly funny that the one two-goal win belongs to the Flyers. Maybe it shouldn't, though, seeing as they seem to have shed the labels of seventh seeds long ago. Pronger clearly led the ripping-off party then, just as he could be leading the Stanley Cup parade in Philly a few days from now. Simply incredible.
Oh, by the way, I loathe Pronger with a passion. Just thought I'd add that in there.