Canada isn't known for developing advanced military technology (all due respect to the late, lamented Avro Arrow), but the government might want to look into the amazing cloaking properties of Flyers defender Chris Pronger. Apparently everything from his shoulders down is invisible to the prying eyes of officials.
Either that or the refs have somehow become convinced that it's 1999. How else to explain the assessment of one minor penalty through three Cup final games to a player who has spent nearly 100 minutes hacking, whacking, cross-checking and interfering with every Blackhawk who wanders within his considerable range?
Sure, this is the final and it's going to feature a slightly more liberal interpretation of the rules. That's fine. You want to give the boys a chance to determine the outcome on their own. But for all the silly talk surrounding his post-game puck shenanigans and his what-me? performances in the media scrums, the real story has been Pronger's ability to get away with the sort of trench warfare that the league supposedly eliminated in the post-lockout era. And, just as surprisingly, the willingness of the Blackhawks to accept it as part of the cost of doing business.
"You just have to stand there and be willing to battle. That's part of the game," said Dustin Byfuglien, the hero of the second and third rounds who has been rendered harmless by Pronger's tactics in this series. "It's not going to be easy at all."
Of course it's not. But with just three shots to his credit in the series -- this after scoring three game-winners against the Sharks -- Byfuglien's not getting much respect from the officials, either. It's nice that he's "enjoying" and "learning from" his battle against the wily veteran Pronger, as he suggested to the waiting media hordes on Thursday, but the big banger has to find a way to earn some calls. Keep doing what he's doing, for sure...but maybe, quietly, point out to the officials all the fun they're missing.
Probably not going to happen, though. The Hawks seemed determined Thursday to take the high road.
"We'll give [Pronger] credit. We'll give their players credit for playing well defensively against some of our top players, but it's always been about us and how we can play better," said Jonathan Toews, himself limited to just a single assist in the series. "We've played against some tough, defensive players in previous series. It's all about overcoming that adversity, overcoming the obstacles that are in front of you and just finding a way."
Honestly, you have to appreciate that approach. Of course, it's a lot easier to maintain when you're up in the series two games to one. We'll see if they're still as gallant should the Flyers come back to tie it up.
Most disturbing trend of the Finals, at least from Chicago's perspective, has to be Philadelphia's ability to amp up its domination as the games are wearing on. Shots on goal never tell the whole story, but when the Flyers outshot the visitors 15-4 in the third period of both Games 2 and 3, that's about as accurate a snapshot as you'll find.
It seems clear that the physical toll the Flyers are extracting early in games, especially on the Blackhawks' slick, puck-moving defenders, is paying off as the night progresses. The big concern now for the Hawks has to be the cumulative effect of this punishment as the series moves along. It's important to play the game that got them to where they are, but they've got to make some adjustments if they want to avoid being completely worn down as the series heads toward the elimination games.
Quicker puck decisions, shorter outlet passes and better positioning by their forwards might help slow the impact of the Philly forecheck, but Chicago's forwards also have to do a better job mucking up the neutral zone to slow Flyers down before they build up the ferocious speed that's powering their attack.
Biggest surprise of the series? How about the play of Flyers forward Scott Hartnell? Held without a goal for the first nine games of the postseason -- a stat that accurately reflected his limited impact on those contests -- he's emerged as Philadelphia's most potent weapon. With two goals and five points against Chicago, Hartnell trails only linemate Danny Briere in scoring, but his consistent involvement in the play has really impressed. While Briere and Ville Leino have worked their puck magic to create chances, Hartnell's willingness to move his feet and fight for position down low has allowed him to be so effective.
And it could be that the intensity of the series has allowed him to narrow his focus on the task at hand. Dogged by rumors of off-ice issues, Hartnell had a lousy regular season, and that carried over into the early games of the playoffs. But over the past couple weeks, he's been a different player, offering a simpler, up-and-down game that plays to his strengths -- an ability to stake a spot in the trenches, the determination to win battles down low for possession, and a deft touch on deflections.
It'll happen again. Maybe not tonight, maybe not Sunday, but you know it's coming. Just like it did in Game 3, when it happened twice. A controversial call on the ice that could change the course of a game. And just as sure as it'll happen, you can count on one thing: thanks to the use of video replay, the NHL will get it right.
Feel free to complain about how the league is always tinkering with its rules, but after watching Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga robbed of a perfect game on a blown call that same night, can any hockey fan harbor resentment towards the occasional delay in the action to ensure justice is served?
Consider the two plays in Game 3 that went to the war room: First, there was a Scott Hartnell goal that was ruled good after it was determined without a doubt that the puck had crossed the line. Then Simon Gagne had a potential game-winner wiped out in overtime. Both were correct calls, and the game was decided on the merits of the players, not through a cruel twist of fate.
Give the NHL credit. It recognized long ago that human error is inevitable and the game is more important the bruised ego of an official whose mistake is brought into glaring relief by a reversed call. It understood what was at stake. And it did the right thing. It's too late for the hard-luck Galarraga, but look for baseball to finally enter the 21st century and follow the NHL's well-considered lead.