Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Posted: 11 a.m.
By Jay Greenberg
Knee, foot, hand. And now back. There are still many more NHL players with the motivation to be sticking pins in a Chris Pronger doll than he has body parts that have gone bad in the last 12 months. But the gap is closing, though the Flyers can only hope not as quickly as the 36-year-old defensemans career's might be.
I started the season with a surgery and now who knows whether I am going to have another one or not? said Pronger Monday. From an injury standpoint it has been the toughest year.
Start to get back and feeling good and another one crops up.
With doctors' appointments scheduled for Tuesday, Pronger wouldnt answer the question as to whether the pain shooting down his leg could help him more rapidly wrap his head around the ordeal of a fourth surgery in 12 months. Most likely, the treatment will be more conservative; otherwise there seems little way Pronger will be ready by October. But as Paul Holmgren awaits a definitive report on the Flyers most essential players spine, the GM may be feeling chills running down his own.
In Mark Howes final four seasons with the Flyers, the best defenseman in franchise history had back problems that limited him to an average of 38 games a year, including only 19 in 1990-91, when the Holmgren-coached Flyers missed the playoffs for the second consecutive spring. He was fired 22 games into the following season, when Howe played only 40 games and the Flyers didnt make the postseason again.
Those teams, midway through a five-year playoff drought, were not nearly as talented as this one. But the uncertainty of the availability of the guy who most calmed the defensive zone and could create in the offensive one took a huge toll -- and not just in plays not made. With the teams most critical player in limbo, who could attempt to claim locker room ownership? Some suggest captain Mike Richards, who had his own physical problems, did not.
The Flyers went 9-4 in the midseason stretch when Pronger was recovering from a fractured foot, but that was December and January, not March, April and May.
The second half of the season teams start to realize that they have to start playing good hockey to make the postseason, said Brian Boucher on Tuesday. Wins are harder to come by.
The second time around without Pronger, when he had a broken hand, the Flyers went 5-5-7. In the postseason, it wasnt until he finally could get a grip, that they could too. Game 7, when Pronger finally was deemed ready to take a regular shift, was the best game the Flyers had played by far since he went out. And when his back promptly went out, the Flyers were done in four straight, two of the games not even being competitive.
I really felt like we missed Chris in the Boston series, said Peter Laviolette. You saw the damage Zdeno Chara was doing at the other end of the ice and how difficult it was for our guys to generate what we needed to generate in the offensive zone.
A year ago, Chara was playing hurt while the Flyers were rallying back from 3-0. You have to look only a little past the Flyers goaltending, which obviously cost them as well, to see Prongers absence as an even larger factor in their demise.
Since there is no way they can come back with all the same goalies Laviolette kept having to yank, Holmgren will try for an upgrade this summer. But if injuries are turning Pronger, who has six seasons left on his contract, into the shadow of what he was, thats Howes shadow falling across the window of opportunity for this team.
We played a hell of a Game 7 against Buffalo, said Boucher. It was like we played earlier in the season, when we steamrolled teams.
Certainly Buffalo, its forwards corps in tatters, was all but ready to go, but the Flyers were the Flyers again for long as it would last, which was not even through Game 1 of the Bruins series, when Prongers back seized up.
With players whispering that nobody, not even Laviolette, read any riot acts down the stretch, it sounds like Prongers voice was missed in the room as much as his 6-6 body on the ice. He provides a lot of cheap sarcasm for his 7 million a year and some players likely needed to hear it.
Indeed, the long spring of 2010 may have manifested itself in the springless legs of 2011 team. But more specifically, the increased workloads on Andrej Meszaros, Kimmo Timonen and Sean ODonnell seemed to wear them down. Against Boston, Matt Carle, without his usual partner, seemed particularly lost.
The leg bone is connected to the thigh bone. The Flyers, six deep on defense and seemingly playing with house money, began to resemble more a house of cards. There was only the most vague consolation for them in seeing Washington also going down in four. Losing to the Bruins so badly cut like a knife, in this case the potential for a surgeons knife cutting into Pronger.
The year from hell is over, he declared Monday. But if the teams anchor defenseman cant give the Flyers 78 or so games and four rounds in 2011-12, they are headed for Purgatory.
Related: ProHockeyTalk.com delves into Pronger's deal Buy Flyers gear
Jay Greenberg covered the Flyers for 14 years for the Daily News and Evening Bulletin. His history of the Flyers, Full Spectrum, was published in 1996. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.