Big-man Pronger big reason for early Oilers' success

DETROIT -- Moments after turning in another dominating performance in a crucial 4-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday, Chris Pronger knew where this is going.

Big-money player whose playoff record is, well, spotty, finally turning in the kind of series-altering performance long expected, but rarely delivered.

So, is the 6-foot-6 Pronger doing anything differently this spring? Has he changed his approach to postseason competition?

"No," Pronger said curtly. "Obviously with the rule changes, it's a little bit different and you've got to change your game a little bit as opposed to other years. But really not in my eyes, but maybe in yours."

Let's be clear. We're not suggesting Chris Pronger is a playoff stiff. Really.

Pronger has emerged as one of the finest defensemen of his generation. He won a Norris Trophy and a Hart Trophy as league MVP in 2000. He has been part of two Canadian Olympics teams. He's played in four All-Star games.

But since arriving in the NHL in 1993, Pronger has been on teams that won two playoff series only once, in 2001, when his St. Louis Blues were dispatched by the eventual Cup winners from Denver in five games in the Western Conference finals.

In fact, in St. Louis, where Pronger at one point was the highest-paid player in the NHL, the Blues became synonymous with playoff flops. In 1999-00, the Blues won the Presidents' Trophy, but were upset by the San Jose Sharks in the first round. In 2003, the Blues coughed up a 3-1 lead to Vancouver and lost in seven games in the first round.
The Oilers' current playoff foe, the Red Wings, defeated Pronger's Blues in three straight seasons from 1996 through 1998.

At times during the postseason, Pronger's discipline was called into question after he took a rash of penalties, some at crucial junctures.

So, how does Pronger assess his own body of work in the playoffs?

"When you don't win, obviously people are going to look and point fingers and do what they can. But some of them I was hurt for, some of them I wasn't. I know it's not an excuse. You've got to go out and perform and play at a high level every chance you get," Pronger said.

"I think looking at the teams we had and looking at the teams that Detroit had, there's a reason they were winning those Stanley Cups and we were losing to them. So, it's pretty easy to cast doubt or point fingers or do whatever you want. But at the end of the day, when they beat us, they were the better team," he added.

So far this spring, though, Pronger has been a force.

In Game 1, a double-overtime loss, Pronger played 38:33 and scored a goal.

On Sunday, in a game the Oilers absolutely had to win, Pronger played 27:32 and scored the game's first goal with a laser from the blue line. Then, with the game tied at 2 late in the second period, Pronger stole the puck from Jason Williams just inside the Red Wings' blue line and set up rookie Brad Winchester's first NHL goal. It turned out to be the winner and Pronger finished the day a plus-4.

"He is a heck of a hockey player and what a benefit, to have to put out there when you are trying to protect the lead. He has been incredible for the last number of weeks, and continues to play," Oilers coach Craig MacTavish said. "He looks like a guy, to me, that wants to take the team and prolong the run."

Pronger looks like the guy the Oilers were banking he would be when they traded for him prior to the start of the regular season.

A strong presence both physically and vocally, Pronger is the main reason the Oilers considered themselves Cup contenders this season. After two games in this first-round matchup with Detroit, he has been the best player on the ice and has helped steal home-ice advantage away from the Wings.

"His all-around execution, from start to finish every game, he doesn't make many mistakes and his awareness of what's going on on the ice is better than anybody I've ever played with," said defense partner and team captain Jason Smith. "His vision offensively and defensively is as good as it can get."

Earlier in the season, there were rumors that Pronger and MacTavish were at odds. But a source told ESPN.com that it was merely Pronger's competitive nature and desire to be a difference-maker with the Oilers.

"That's something that he's got, is that passion and that competitiveness that every team that wants to have success needs," Smith said.

Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe believes that had the Oilers finished higher in the standings and had their profile been a little higher, Pronger would be a shoo-in to be a Norris Trophy finalist.

"He's had a phenomenal year," Lowe said. "I've never seen that consistency in a player. I haven't seen it in a long time. In terms of consistency, bringing it night in and night out, the guy that stands out most to me [in comparison] is Gretz," Lowe said referring to his old Oiler teammate Wayne Gretzky.

Lowe said there might have been a handful of games this season where Pronger didn't bring his "A" game. But that's it.

As for Pronger's playoff history, and specifically the penalty issue, Lowe thinks that might be a function of having to ramp up the physicality on a team that wasn't always known for its toughness.

"But we always have a physical team, so maybe that's a reason he doesn't bring it as much. I don't know. But we haven't seen any of that [lack of discipline]," Lowe said.
"The game is a little different in that respect where I don't know if you need that edge anymore."

In two games, Pronger has yet to take a penalty in spite of the fact the Red Wings have been trying to punish him as much as possible.

"Pronger plays so many minutes that unless you get to him and wear him down, he's going to have a lot of success just with his size," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "I thought tonight, though, we weren't as effective on their 'D' at all, so that makes their game better."

One thing seems certain. If Pronger continues to play the way he has been, he won't have to face many more questions about his past.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.