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STANLEY CUP: Flyers' stars finally come through as Game 4 looms tonight

Photo by Kathy Willens

Photo by Kathy Willens

PHILADELPHIA -- Chris Pronger brought a lively personality and some leadership to a Flyers' locker room that needed an infusion of both.

He also led them to the Stanley Cup final.

Suddenly, dealing two first-round picks to acquire one of the top defensemen in NHL history doesn't seem so steep.

Pronger has been the dominant defender -- and agitator -- the Flyers counted on when they sent forward Joffrey Lupul, defenseman Luca Sbisa and a slew of draft picks to Anaheim for him.

Pronger promptly signed a $34.9 million, seven-year contract extension.

It was a bold move by Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren, but it had to be made to shape the Flyers into title contenders. Pronger cracks one-liners and pokes fun at the media, all with a wry smile that shows just how much he's enjoying his third Stanley Cup final in five years -- all with different teams.

He's also the only player on the Flyers roster to win the Stanley Cup. He helped Anaheim win it in 2007 a year after he lost in the final with Edmonton. He'll hoist the Cup again if the Flyers, who trail 2-1, can rally to beat the Blackhawks.

Pronger, who turns 36 in October, has embraced his role as series villain. He pocketed Chicago's winning game pucks and whipped a towel at Chicago's Ben Eager, all while playing the bulk of each game.

Pronger's been the most durable Flyer in a punishing postseason. He played 32 minutes, 21 seconds in Game 1, 27:52 in Game 2, and 32:07 in Game 3.

"I came down here in a wheelchair," Pronger cracked Thursday.

He's also won the mental battle against the Blackhawks. Case in point, Game 3. Pronger poked and prodded Blackhawks forward Dustin Byfuglien in front of the Flyers net. Byfuglien finally retaliated -- and was whistled for slashing.

Pronger, the NHL MVP in 1999-2000, has earned the respect of the officials enough to get calls that others don't.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville coached Pronger for eight seasons in St. Louis. He's used to watching Pronger do all he can to wrestle an advantage.

But he was surprised at some of the little things Pronger has been able to get away with.

"I think there's a couple for sure late in the game," Quenneville said. "There was one that got my attention. Whether it's stick use or obstruction, I think we'll keep an eye on it."

Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews refused to believe any of Pronger's tactics had affected his team.

"I don't know how he would be getting into our heads, whether it's vocally or what not," he said. "He's not talking a lot out there. He's playing. He's doing his job the way he knows he can do it. He's just one player. I don't think it's that big of a deal."

Quenneville has other concerns besides solving Pronger. The Blackhawks are coming off their first loss in a month. They had won seven straight playoff games and seven straight on the road before losing Game 3.

Escaping Philadelphia with a 3-1 edge will be tough. The Flyers are 8-1 at home this postseason.

"We have a lot of confidence in ourselves and in our ability in the next game," Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said. "Something we're going to focus on is finishing strong. I thought we had a good start to our last game. Unfortunately, our finish wasn't as good as our start."

Pronger had an assist in Philadelphia's 4-3 win over the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 3. That cut the Blackhawks' series lead to 2-1. Game 4 is Friday night in Philadelphia.

The win was a big one for the Flyers, who avoided losing the first three games for a second time this postseason. They rallied from a 3-0 hole to beat Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinal.

"I think coming back from that series was huge for our confidence," Pronger said. "But even before that, we all believed we have a good team. It is just a matter of going out and playing to that high level and our own expectations each and every night."

If Pronger can help Philadelphia win its first title since 1975 he could be the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoffs MVP.

First, they have to win.

The Blackhawks could get a boost in Game 4 if forward Andrew Ladd returns to the lineup for the first time this series. Ladd has practiced this week for the first time since he suffered an undisclosed injury during Game 4 of the Western Conference finals. Quenneville listed Ladd as day to day but expects him to play at some point this series.

After dominating the postseason, the Blackhawks are a Game 4 loss away from feeling real pressure.

"Should create an appetite for us going into tomorrow's game and we're looking for a response," Quenneville said