Flyers' Cup hopes ride on a fit Pronger

The Flyers have yet to announce whether Chris Pronger will be ready for the playoffs. (Matt Slocum/AP file photo)

It isn't easy, what the Flyers accomplished here over the last few weeks.

They clinched a division title Saturday night while managing, at the same time, to tamp down what were once sky-high postseason expectations. If the Flyers are more comfortable in the role of stalking horse than pacesetter, their recent free fall accomplished that for them.

"It's a big relief," winger Scott Hartnell said, referring to the merciful end of the regular season. "To be honest, I can't really remember our last regular-season win. We don't really remember the problems now. We've got the postseason coming up."

If there is one reason to believe the Flyers can snap out of their trance and go on a long playoff run, it was not their needed but joyless 7-4 victory over the New York Islanders.

It is Chris Pronger.

Since the big defenseman broke his hand a month ago, the Flyers have won six games. They have lost 10, including four shootouts and two overtime games. Worse, they have played without the edge, the heart, the urgency that will be absolute necessities when the playoffs begin this week.

"We've got some playoff performers on our team," Hartnell said. "Prongs will be back soon, hopefully. Everyone is on the same page."

No Pronger, no chance for the Stanley Cup. If that theory seems simplistic, it probably is. The rest of the Flyers, from captain Mike Richards to goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky should, by all means, feel free to prove that theory wrong. They haven't done much in the last month.

With the division title and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference on the line against a dead team, the Flyers blew their quick two-goal lead. Richards opened the second period by chopping at Travis Hamonic's legs right in front of a referee. The Islanders scored on the power play that followed for a 3-2 lead. And coach Peter Laviolette immediately yanked Bobrovsky.

That is not how a team with championship aspirations springboards into the postseason. Laviolette had anointed the 21-year-old Bobrovsky his No. 1 playoff goalie. In his last two starts, in games that mattered, he lost in overtime and got benched early in the second period.

So much for riding a hot goaltender into the playoffs. Surely Laviolette's hope was that naming Bobrovsky the starter would give the rookie a jolt of confidence. He needs Bobrovsky to rise to the occasion the way Cam Ward did for him the year Carolina won the Cup.

Maybe he will, but he certainly didn't Saturday.

The Flyers' strength at the other end was supposed to be their depth. They don't have a singular superstar like Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby. They're supposed to come at teams in waves, creating matchup nightmares over the course of a series.

Saturday, and for much of this recent late-season stumble, the Flyers have had one line playing at a high level. Danny Briere, Hartnell and Ville Leino produced three goals and three assists. Hartnell's second goal, on a nasty shot from an awkward angle, gave the Flyers a 5-4 lead late in the second period.

They held on for a win that locks them into the No. 2 seed in the East. They will play Buffalo, the team that beat them Friday night in overtime.

It is not a great matchup because of one man. If a goaltender is going to get hot and carry his team through this series, who do you like? Bobrovsky or Ryan Miller, who carried Team USA to the Olympic gold medal game on his narrow shoulders last year in Vancouver?

But it doesn't matter whom the Flyers face. At its best, this team can beat anyone. At its worst, and we've seen a lot of that the past month, this team can lose to anyone.

If these Flyers slink off to an early exit, they will write their names in indelible ink among the most disappointing teams in the history of a franchise that knows too much about disappointment. But if they turn it on and make another run like last year's, Hartnell is right. This past month will be forgotten.

"It's a new season," Briere said. "You're starting from scratch. It doesn't matter any more what you did in the regular season. We have to find a way to get our confidence going again. And we should."

The expected return of Pronger can only help. No other player has as big an impact on both teams as he does. There's a reason he has been in the Finals with his last three teams. He intimidates opponents and is vital to his own team's chemistry.

The Flyers get a fresh sheet of ice now. They get the Sabres in the first round, with Ovechkin and Crosby potentially lurking down the line. The last month doesn't matter unless they let it.


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