It was not even three weeks ago when Chris Pronger was suspended for Game 4 of the Western Conference finals and the Ducks, down 2-1 in that series against Detroit, were called to rally around his absence.
The Ducks won that game, 5-3, and didn’t lose again in taking the Red Wings in six games. But who would have guessed they would be called to that task again?
It is now deja vu for the Ducks after Pronger was suspended Sunday by the NHL for Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals -- the result of a hit with his forearm that knocked out Ottawa’s Dean McAmmond in the Senators’ 5-3 victory Saturday night.
It is the second time that Pronger has been disciplined in these playoffs because of a blow to the head and the seventh suspension in his 13-year career. He will sit out tonight’s game but will be able to return for Game 5 Wednesday in Anaheim. The Ducks lead the series, 2-1.
“We accept the league’s decision,” Ducks Coach Randy Carlyle said. “Obviously, we feel that the player did not intentionally try to hurt Dean McAmmond. It was unfortunately one of those things that happened.
“We have to live by the league’s action. It’s the rules we play under and you accept it and move on.”
Pronger was suspended in the Detroit series because of a blow he delivered to the head of Red Wings forward Tomas Holmstrom in the second period of Game 3.
On Saturday, the Ducks’ star defenseman knocked McAmmond to the ice with his left arm after the Ottawa winger attempted a shot in the third period. Late in the second period, McAmmond scored the eventual game-winning goal with a centering pass that deflected off Pronger’s stick into the net.
No penalty was assessed on the ice for Pronger’s hit, but Colin Campbell, the NHL’s director of hockey operations, determined that discipline was warranted.
“Mr. Pronger used his forearm to deliver a forceful hit to the head of his opponent,” Campbell said in a conference call. “Also, his actions caused injury to his opponent.”
Early Sunday, Pronger had a hearing with Campbell over the telephone with Ducks General Manager Brian Burke also present. Campbell said he did consider additional discipline because Pronger is a repeat offender.
“We all know how precious it is to chase for the Stanley Cup and to be at this point,” Campbell said. “And it’s a tough decision to make. We don’t take these things lightly at any time. Particularly now.
“But on the other hand a player did get knocked out. And that player may not be playing [tonight], too. We’re not sure.”
As he sat on the podium alongside Burke, Pronger said there was no malicious intent behind what he did.
“It was a reaction play,” Pronger said. “I stepped up to make the hit and got him with my forearm. And, obviously, you’ve got to suffer the consequences of what’s come down.”
McAmmond did not skate Sunday but, in a statement released by the Senators, said he agreed with the ruling.
“I think it should have been a suspension because it was a blow to the head,” said McAmmond, a 13-year NHL veteran. “It wasn’t incidental. It’s not like that couldn’t have been avoided.”
Said Ottawa General Manager John Muckler: “It’s no doubt that he did this on purpose,” referring to Pronger. Muckler also said that McAmmond has a concussion.
That puts McAmmond’s status for tonight’s game at Scotiabank Place up in the air.
“It doesn’t look promising,” said Ottawa Coach Bryan Murray, who confirmed McAmmond had lost consciousness after being hit.
McAmmond, however, made it clear he hopes to be in the lineup tonight.
“I’m feeling pretty much the same as I was [Saturday], a little bit ‘headachy’, not feeling quite right,” he said. “I’m going to do everything I can, or as little as I can, to feel good tomorrow. I want to play, but at this point in time, I’m not sure right now.”
Burke said he accepts Campbell’s ruling but argued in the hearing that Senators winger Chris Neil should have been disciplined for a high hit to the head of Andy McDonald.
“Chris Neil’s hit on Andy McDonald was reprehensible,” said Burke as he tried to temper his anger. “You guys go back and break down the tape. He took six strides in from the blue line, he’s going full speed, full extension [and] elbow right to the head.
“Our player skates away, he gets a free pass. Their player gets hurt. Chris Pronger gets a game.”
McDonald was among several players disappointed that Neil didn’t receive a hearing.
“I think Prongs’ hit was kind of more of a reaction and less intent there,” McDonald said. “I think with Neil, he definitely came in with a lot of speed.
“I tried to get out of the way and it seemed like he was really using his hands to go after my head.”
It is rare to see suspensions handed down in the Stanley Cup finals. Two other players have suffered that fate: Ville Nieminen was hit with one game in the 2004 finals for hitting Tampa Bay center Vincent Lecavalier from behind while playing for Calgary and Detroit’s Jiri Fischer was docked one game for a cross-check on Carolina’s Tommy Westlund in 2002.
Pronger said after his hit on Holmstrom that he “can’t and won’t” change the way he plays. To an extent, the 6-foot-6 defenseman echoed those thoughts Sunday, saying, “I don’t think I can make wholesale changes and still be the type of player I can be.”
Carlyle said he doesn’t consider Pronger a dirty player.
“I’m not unhappy with Chris Pronger,” Carlyle said. “I think a lot of times you look upon it, the positives that Chris Pronger brings to the table far outweigh any of the negatives. And this is a negative.
“These things happen. And he’s been part of two of them.”
The Ducks now must draw upon what they accomplished in the conference finals. Joe DiPenta, who hasn’t played since Game 4 against Detroit, is expected to return to the lineup and Ric Jackman figures to soak up some of Pronger’s minutes, particularly on the power play.
Winger Chris Kunitz will probably return after a bruised stomach muscle in the second period knocked him out of Game 3. But it’s the large hole on the blue line that Ottawa hopes to use to its advantage.
“The key will be for us to go out as if he was in the lineup and not take anything for granted,” Senators center Chris Kelly said. “We want to force their other defensemen to be accountable.”
In the end, Pronger said he didn’t feel he needed to apologize to his teammates.
“I think they understand how I feel and the situation we’re in,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to do anybody any good in our locker room.”
Ducks goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere said it was just another adverse situation they must overcome. Like they did against the Red Wings.
“We’ve proven that we can play without Prongs,” Giguere said. “But in saying that, he’s not an easy guy to replace. We’d much rather have him in our lineup than not.
“There’s nothing that we can do about the decision. We have to move forward.”