PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Danny Briere signed the richest free-agent deal in Flyers history. Chris Pronger was acquired for two first-round draft picks.
Both players have been worth the big deals now that Philadelphia is in the Stanley Cup final. For all the reasons the Flyers have gone on this stunning ride from Eastern Conference seventh-seed to the final, the duo have easily led the way.
Win Philadelphia's first title since 1975 and either one could be the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoffs MVP.
First, they have to win.
Briere scored and 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 the unenviable task of trying to win a series for the second time this postseason after losing the first three games. They rallied from down three games to beat Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinal.
"I think coming back from that series was huge for our confidence," Pronger said Thursday. "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."
Briere and Pronger have played at a high level for the last two months. Briere leads the Flyers with 11 goals and played his best in the Boston series, sparking the improbable comeback with five goals and five assists.
Briere left his spot as Buffalo's co-captain in 2007 to sign a $52 million, eight-year contract with the Flyers a year after they posted the worst record in the NHL.
Briere, 5-foot-10, scored 53 points this year playing mostly at the wing. He returned to his natural center spot for the postseason because of injuries and played more like he did when he totaled 95 points his last season with the Sabres.
"It's just a playoff run, but at the same time, this is one of the best times of my life," Briere said.
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 brought a lively personality and leadership to a locker room that needed an infusion of both. He cracks one-liners and pokes fun at the media, all with a wry smile that shows just how much he's enjoying this run.
He's also the only Flyer on the roster to win the Stanley Cup. He helped Anaheim win it in 2007 a year after he lost in the final with Edmonton.
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.
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 — though an extra poke or head games.
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."
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.
Chicago still has a series lead, but escaping Philadelphia with a 3-1 series lead 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."
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.