(photo was crowdsourced from Twitter, created by @KeithDotson. Thanks, Keith!)
For all the teasing and ribbing, all the bile and anger the fans have thrown, and all the pucks he has collected, Chris Pronger has been something no other player in the Stanley Cup Finals has consistently been: effective. Big hits and big elbows, the occasional post whistle jab mixed in with good positioning and minimizing the effectiveness of the top line from the Chicago Blackhawks, Pronger has been the focus of the Finals in a way usually reserved for Pittsburgh Penguins first round draft picks.
The focus on Pronger has been a boon to his teammates, who are almost invisible after the focus shift when number 20 takes to the ice. When it isn’t the media talking about the match ups, or the fans booing him for every puck possession, it’s the lines of the Blackhawks and when they play that are most affected by his presence. Pronger is owning the finals in a way only a goalie making up for the lackluster play of his team can.
Surprisingly ineffective has been Dustin Byfuglien. While everyone was waiting for Byfuglien to break out of his slump, Pronger was owning the head to head match up with a mixture of skill and pest-like antagonizing. It was the match up everyone was expecting and looking forward to, and it was being dominated by Chris Pronger.
That was, until game five.
Byfuglien finally found his game, along with the rest of his teammates, when Coach Quenneville finally returned to his own style and split up the lines, making the Flyers choose who they should match their defensemen against. That the split hadn’t occurred earlier in the series was shocking to anyone who has seen Coach Q behind the bench for a season.
Byfuglien came out swinging in game five, with two goals and two assists, but it was the big hit that had everyone talking.
Chatting with Jason Cohen on Twitter last night, I started to realize what it was about the hit that made it so significant. Jason wasn’t too impressed by the hit, and I can’t say that I blame him. The hit itself was fun to watch, but not exactly damaging. I’m sure the fans at the United Center didn’t want to see Pronger get up too quickly from the hit. But what the hit wasn’t in it’s violence, it certainly made up for in it’s significance.
Until then, Chris Pronger was a character, a villain who enjoyed playing the role. Not to diminish his effectiveness, but he was surrounded by a certain mythology we have seen before. He was unhittable, an unmovable force to be reckoned with. Much of that mythology had been earned from his previous play.
I liken it to Batman, the DC Comics character. Half of the reason Batman has the upper hand is the fear he instills in the bad guys he fights simply from being who he is. The mask, the darkness, his reputation, it all serves a purpose. He talks about it in the movies and everyone who writes the character references it at some point. It’s his most important tool. He wouldn’t be nearly as effective if he wore a jogging suit and went by the name Larry.
The impact of that hit took away the myth that was surrounding Pronger, and made him look more human. After game five, simply stepping on the ice will not be enough. Pronger will have to earn that mythology back. The post game quotes said it all. This was a person who was looking to scoop his reputation back up into his arms, carry it back to the hotel, and try to nurse it back to health. It was a hit that could have a lasting impact on the series. It’s something a team can rally behind.
Or, to put it another way, this quote from Iron Man 2, spoken by Mickey Rourke, sums things up nicely.
I believe those sharks will look a lot like the Blackhawks for the next two games.
Thus spoke Byfuglien.