Chris Pronger returns to hot Flyers lineup

The hottest team in the Eastern Conference gets to welcome back stud blueliner Chris Pronger to its lineup Thursday night.

Gulp. That was the sound of the rest of the East holding its breath.

Not that the red-hot Philadelphia Flyers, winners of seven of eight in January, needed any help, but they get Pronger back after he missed 13 games with a broken foot. The club went 9-4-0 without its best defenseman and clutch playoff performer.

"We had a real tough stretch, too, with nine of 10 games on the road," Pronger told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "The guys played really well in my absence. You look at our maturity this year from last year, how we handle things, nothing seems to faze us."

The veteran Pronger, who has coach/GM material down the road, sat back while he was out and looked at a team that's come a long way. It was just over 13 months ago that John Stevens was fired as coach and the Flyers were near the basement of the conference. Now, they're a bona-fide Stanley Cup contender, buoyed by their trip to the Cup finals last spring and continued success this season.

"Last year, we were in 14th place, had fired our coach, there were all kinds of rumors swirling around about our team ... it's kind of come full circle to the point where we lose key guys and we don't even miss a beat," Pronger said.

The month out of the lineup afforded Pronger, 36, a vantage point from the press box.

"If I was the opposing coach, I think I look at our team and it gives people nightmares with our matchups because we have three legit scoring lines and a fourth line that can chip in and play well defensively and give us a lot of energy," Pronger said. "The blue line has three solid sets. We don't do a whole lot of matching up on defense. And the two goalies, we don't skip a beat whether it's one or the other."

Maybe Pronger would have liked to have said, "Good luck stopping this team," but he didn't. He credited coach Peter Laviolette for pushing the Flyers into constantly trying to evolve and improve. No one is satisfied despite the first-place standing.

"Peter has done a great job of keeping guys striving for that next level," Pronger said. "We need to continue to keep this team getting better. Because we all know that the teams that develop with each 20-game segment, the teams that are firing on all cylinders come April, are the ones that are going to go far. And we want to be one of those teams."

For Pronger, Thursday's return against the visiting Ottawa Senators will be a test. He was just feeling comfortable again in early December after recuperating from offseason surgery on his right knee when he broke his right foot.

"Hopefully I can get back to where I was when I got hurt," Pronger said.

The Flyers' depth means Pronger won't have to push it too far. The team is six deep on defense; the offseason additions of Andrej Meszaros and Sean O'Donnell have really strengthened an already good blue line, and that will allow Pronger to find his rhythm and not overdo it.

"With the addition of Mesz and Odie, the whole goal or purpose of it was to really roll three sets of defensemen and not play the top four 30 minutes a night," Pronger said.

And he agreed that despite the frustration of being sidelined for a month, the long-term benefit for his body might be that the time off keeps him fresher for the playoffs.

The playoffs are when Pronger shines brightest. He led the underdog Edmonton Oilers to a stunning Stanley Cup finals appearance in 2006 and should have won the Conn Smythe Trophy for it. He was the key piece in getting Anaheim over the hump and winning its Cup in 2007. And, boy, was he gold last spring for the Flyers in their run to the finals.

Can Philadelphia get it done this season? There are key players on this team who were willing to take less money to try to win that championship. Pronger, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Claude Giroux all signed cap-friendly contracts to help GM Paul Holmgren ice the most competitive team possible.

"Homer has been one of the front-runners in the league of trying to lock up guys to cap-friendly deals and solidify his roster," Pronger said. "Some guys, whether they took less money or more term or whatever the case may be, a lot of guys like playing here. We've got a good team. You talk to guys around the league, especially in the cap system, it's about being on a good team and having a chance to win. The money's always going to be there but you want to win. And that's what is great about this team. We have a lot of guys that just want to win."