DETROIT — Suddenly, the game meant almost nothing.
When St. Louis defenseman Chris Pronger crumpled to the ice unconscious, his heart jolted out of rhythm after he was struck in the chest by a slap shot from Detroit defenseman Dmitri Mironov, players paled in fright. In the midst of what had been a spirited playoff game, which the Red Wings would win, 6-1, Sunday to tie the teams' Western Conference semifinal series at one game each, it was a graphic reminder of how thin a line they skate between triumph and tragedy.
"I hate to say it, but the last thing on your mind is a hockey game," Marc Bergevin said, still shaken after receiving word Pronger is expected to recover fully but was kept at Detroit's Henry Ford Hospital Sunday for overnight observation. "He's a human being laying there. It was scary."
Pronger, who led the NHL with a plus-47 plus/minus rating and is a likely Norris Trophy contender, was struck slightly to the left of his heart by Mironov's shot 3:52 into the third period. A slashing penalty was pending against him; when play stopped, he took two strides and collapsed to the ice.
Trainer Ray Barile said Pronger was unconscious for 20 to 30 seconds and his heartbeat had become "thready or weak." Pronger regained consciousness while medical personnel tended to him on the ice and fitted him for a cervical collar to guard against further damage in case he had injured his neck. "At the end he was talking to me," left wing Geoff Courtnall said. "He was asking me what happened and asking how much time was left in the game. Emotionally, he was pretty scared. It would scare anybody."
Team physician Aaron Birenbaum said Pronger's heart stopped briefly but its rhythm quickly returned to normal and remained strong in tests at the hospital. "It's not a common thing," Birenbaum said. "But when anyone is hit on the chest wall over the heart, it certainly can cause arrhythmia."
Blues forward Blair Atcheynum was horrified to see his teammate so still and colorless. "It's just frightening to see a man buckle like that," Atcheynum said. "His eyes were rolled back in his head. You don't know what happened.
"Everybody loves to play and we all want to win the Stanley Cup, but health and life are more important."
Said center Steve Yzerman, who had given the Red Wings a commanding 4-1 lead at 18:47 of the second period: "I think it took the life out of both teams. The game can be really brutal at times. You know these things happen, but it's difficult to play when someone gets hurt like that."
As he was being loaded into the ambulance that took him to the hospital, Pronger told club officials to assure his parents he was fine. His mother, Elia, and father, Jim, who were in the capacity crowd of 19,983 on Mother's Day at Joe Louis Arena, were at his bedside Sunday evening.
"When Dr. Birenbaum and I left, he was having something to eat and wanted to get out," Barile said. If his test results remain normal, Birenbaum said Pronger will probably be released today. Birenbaum also said it's conceivable he might play in Game 3 Tuesday at the Kiel Center but anticipated Pronger will feel sore today.
Losing Pronger--who played 22:28 and a game-high 31 shifts despite missing most of the third period--turned a difficult situation into an impossible mission for the Blues. Already lacking defenseman Al MacInnis, who has missed the first two games of this series because of a pulled groin muscle, they didn't have the fire or resources to pull even with the Red Wings and lost for the first time in six playoff games.
The teams had been even, exchanging power-play goals by St. Louis center Terry Yake and Detroit right wing Martin Lapointe in the first period, but the Red Wings' assertiveness made the difference in the final 40 minutes. Their defense took fewer chances offensively and was far steadier than in their 4-2 loss in Friday's opener. And when the defense did falter, Chris Osgood was there to save them.
The series shifts to the Kiel Center for Games 3 and 4.