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Chicago Blackhawks' Dustin Byfuglien acknowledges the fans after scoring the game winning goal against San Jose Sharks in the overtime of Game 3 of an NHL hockey Western Conference finals Friday, May 21, 2010, in Chicago. The Blackhawks won 3-2 in overtime. (AP Photo/Chicago Sun-Times, John J. Kim)

John J. Kim

The way it is being hyped, the most anticipated 1-on-1 battle in the 2010 Stanley Cup final will be the equivalent of a sumo wrestling match.

Dustin Byfuglien of the Chicago Blackhawks - referred to earlier in the NHL playoffs by Vancouver Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa as "275 pounds of loose meat" - and Chris Pronger of the Philadelphia Flyers will start pounding on each other when the final begins Saturday, with the Cup going to the winner.

That was what the championship series was practically boiled down to Thursday by almost everyone except the two combatants.

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"Yes, I think you guys are," Pronger said when he was asked yet again if the media was making too much out of his pending confrontation with Byfuglien, a 6-foot-4, 257-pound converted defenceman.

All Pronger will allow in talking about Byfuglien is that he would be wasting his energy trying to move the Chicago winger with his slimmer 6-foot-6, 220-pound frame. Better he should use his stick to disrupt the passing lanes and deflect Byfuglien's shots.

"All of the above," Pronger said, refusing to discuss it further.

Byfuglien, 10 years younger than Pronger at 25, and a little more brash, was willing to indulge in at least a little hyperbole.

"It's probably going to be the biggest battle out there," he said.

But this should not be dismissed as preseries puffery. Ever since Byfuglien was put on a line with the Blackhawks' two best players, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, he's been a force - three game-winning goals from the slot, including the Western Conference final winner against the San Jose Sharks last week.

Being the difference is old hat to Pronger. The Flyers are just the latest NHL team to acquire him after he was regarded as the key piece to a Stanley Cup puzzle. The Edmonton Oilers did it in 2006, and wound up in the final; the Anaheim Ducks did it in 2007, and won a championship; and now it is the Flyers' turn after laying out $35-million (U.S.) over seven years last summer for a defenceman who is not exactly in the early years of his career.

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"I'm not in my prime?" Pronger said in mock anger. "I feel like I'm playing better than I did then. I feel as the years gone by I've learned how to play the game more efficiently, how to play the game better."

There is no arguing the point. Pronger is the main reason the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference is playing for the title. He is the wheel horse of a defensive side that smothers high-flying offences - although many think the Flyers have finally met a scoring machine they can't handle in the Blackhawks.

Then again, the 'Hawks don't think that, although Kane, 21, is hoping his enormous linemate can wear down Pronger.

"[Pronger]plays a lot of minutes, too, so, hopefully, you can exploit him as the series goes on," Kane said. "He's 35 now, but playing some of his best hockey. It seems he's still in the prime of his career.

"But maybe a guy like [Byfuglien]can take away his mental focus. If he focuses on big Buff in front of the net, it gives us more time on the outside. The first game will probably be a dictating point of how the series will go."

Fat chance, Pronger says.

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Along with dismissing the buildup of the confrontation with Byfuglien, even though it will be crucial to shutting down Toews and Kane, Pronger says one of the things he's learned over the years is not to get distracted by emotion, something that probably caused him a couple of playoff suspensions on the way to winning his first Cup with the Ducks in 2007.

"Obviously, as you get more mature, you get a little more patient, understand things better, you're not as emotional," he said. "Maybe you take a step back sometimes, take a deep breath and let yourself relax for a second and get your wits about you."

The Blackhawks will be looking to neutralize Pronger the same way the Montreal Canadiens tried (and failed) to do in their conference final series: Dump the puck behind him and make him handle it.

"He's smart, always in the right position," said Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa. "The key to beating him is to keep things simple. He's so good with the stick, maybe just shoot the puck behind him.

"He's a bigger guy, so maybe he's not the quickest turning around. Try and beat him from the corners."

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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