In 48 hours, Chris Pronger went from Stanley Cup MVP candidate to the goat front-runner for the Philadelphia Flyers in Sunday night's 7-4 Game 5 loss at Chicago.
The six-foot-six defenceman, who had his way with the Blackhawks' much smaller forward duo of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in Games 3 and 4, posted a minus-5 rating just two nights later.
Pronger had to know it wasn't going to be his night midway through the first period when Brent Seabrook's shot inside the Flyers' zone deflected off his left ankle and past goalie Michael Leighton for a 1-0 Chicago lead.
He was exposed again less than four minutes later when Blackhawks forward David Bolland was left uncovered by Pronger and banked a shot from behind the goal line off the back of Leighton's right skate for a 2-0 advantage.
Pronger also was on the ice for Kris Versteeg's goal that made it 3-0 with 105 seconds left in the opening period. He sat in the penalty box on the Blackhawks' fifth goal, courtesy Dustin Byfuglien, and was caught pinching at the Chicago blue-line and watched Patrick Sharp make it a 6-3 game late in the third.
"I think this is going to give the Hawks some added confidence going into the next game," said Hockey Night in Canada analyst P.J. Stock of Pronger's performance that followed a plus-4 showing in Philadelphia's 5-3 victory on Friday.
"I can blame Pronger —I can't believe I'm saying this — for most of those goals. The pinch on the sixth goal. The fifth goal he was in the penalty box. [Bolland's] shot from behind the net was Pronger's man as he was lackadaisical waiting for a delayed penalty to be called."
From the opening faceoff, Pronger was challenged physically by Chicago's forwards.
Andrew Ladd laid a hit on the 214-pound blue-liner in the first period, while the six-foot-four, 257-pound Byfuglien administered a bone-jarring hit that sent Pronger falling to the ice at the United Center. Bolland got in on the action with a low-bridge hit.
"That hurts. That hurts," Stock said of Pronger's collision with Byfuglien, who finished the night plus-3 with two goals, two assists and a game-high nine hits. "He goes head-first into the boards.
"That's the first time it's happened to him this playoffs where I've really seen him outmuscled. Could it be fatigue? [And] does it put something in the back of his head?
Everyone's been talking about Byfuglien and the physicality. What will it do the next game?"
Pronger entered Sunday's contest the scoring leader among defencemen in this year's Stanley Cup post-season with four goals and 17 points. He was plus-7 through the first four games of the final, averaged 30 minutes three seconds of ice time, blocked 13 shots and had one minor penalty.
On Sunday, the 35-year-old played 28:37 — the most of any player — and added a game-high five blocked shots.
It marked only the seventh time in 22 playoff games this spring that Pronger was a minus.
Booed all night by the Blackhawks' faithful, he drew more jeers when he was shown on the video board sitting in the penalty box with a gap-toothed grimace.
Byfuglien was a big —literally — reason why Chicago's top line of Toews, Kane and Byfuglien was so unproductive earlier in the Cup final. By splitting them apart Sunday, Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville made it impossible for Pronger to follow them all around.
"I don't know if the changes really mattered all that much," said Pronger. "We didn't do a good enough job in the neutral zone. Unless we get pressure and force them to make plays, anybody can make a play when you have all day to make one."
Kane had a goal and an assist while Toews added an assist and five shots.
"I would keep the Big 3 separated, certainly to start [Game 6]," analyst Scott Morrison said on HNIC's online post-game show. "I wonder how much that impacted on Chris Pronger [on Sunday] because he was seeing something good on all three lines [the Blackhawks] were rolling."
Pronger spoke before the series about making Byfuglien work in front of the net and not simply letting his linebacker-like body camp in front of the crease as Pronger insinuated previous Blackhawks opponents allowed to happen.
"He's a force," said Kane of big Buff. "He plays with energy and passion, and had two goals [Sunday]. It's unbelievable to have him going. Some big hits on Pronger, I think he got him off his game."
A repeat showing on Wednesday could see Chicago hoist the Cup for the first time since 1961.