- Scott Burnside, NHL
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CHICAGO -- He is Silent Bob to Chris Pronger's Jay, Jeff to Pronger's Mutt, yin to Pronger's yang.
The problem with defenseman Matt Carle is if he continues to play as well he has in the Stanley Cup finals, he's going to blow his cover.
The stealth bomber has nothing on Carle, who has floated specter-like through the playoffs when it comes to things like media scrums and sound bytes.
Quiet, polite, understated, he is the accountant or insurance salesman in a roomful of strong personalities ... until he steps on the ice. There, Carle's dynamic play has been a revelation. His quick reads, foot speed and passing ability have been a key element in the Flyers' success.
"I think sometimes he gets lost when he's next to Chris Pronger because Chris is such a dominating player on the ice," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said Saturday. "I've said this all year, Matt has to play against the same players that Chris is playing against, and they're usually pretty good players. For somebody that doesn't have the same stature and size as Chris on the ice, he's a smaller player, he defends very well."
One of Carle's two assists in Game 3 set up the winning goal in overtime, a deft hard pass to the slot that Claude Giroux deflected past Chicago Blackhawks netminder Antti Niemi. Carle also scored the second goal in Game 4, jumping up into the Chicago zone to capitalize on a Niklas Hjalmarsson turnover, a goal that gave the Flyers their first two-goal lead in the series en route to a 5-3 victory that evened the series at two games apiece.
Carle has one goal and 12 assists this postseason, good for fourth among defensemen, and is averaging 25:39 a night in ice time.
"It's obviously a blast to have the opportunity to play in this kind of situation," Carle told ESPN.com on Saturday afternoon after the Flyers had returned to Chicago for what will be a pivotal fifth game Sunday night. "But I try not to get caught up in all the media attention and things like that."
There is more than a little symmetry at play when discussing how Carle has arrived here in this series, literally and figuratively.
A Hobey Baker winner as the top U.S. collegiate player in 2006, Carle arrived in San Jose with high expectations. Those expectations seemed well-founded when he was named to the NHL's all-rookie team in 2007, chipping in 11 goals and 31 assists for a strong Sharks club.
Pronger, with whom Carle has been paired for most of this season, recalls playing against him in the playoffs in 2006 after Carle joined the Sharks at the conclusion of his career at the University of Denver.
"You could see he had skill and talent," Pronger said.
But Carle's production slipped in his sophomore season, and in the summer of 2008, he was dealt to Tampa Bay, the key piece along with a couple of draft picks, in a deal that sent Dan Boyle to San Jose.
Boyle, of course, was coveted by the Sharks because defenseman Brian Campbell wasn't going to re-sign there (Campbell ultimately signed a long-term deal in Chicago). Whether it was the expectations or his hefty contract, or maybe just Tampa with its circus-like administration, things went south in a hurry for Carle in the fall of 2008.
Just 12 games into the 2008-09 season, he was dealt to Philadelphia for Steve Downie and assorted other spare parts.
It was a move that has paid dividends for both franchises. Downie has blossomed with Tampa Bay, while Carle has proved to be the perfect foil for Pronger, who was acquired by the Flyers in June to be the "missing link."
"Looking back at the trades, I don't think I was getting dumped because of the way I was playing," Carle said. "I still scratch my head on the trade from Tampa Bay to Philly."
Former Tampa GM Jay Feaster, now a regular media analyst, saw Carle up close during the defenseman's brief tenure with the Lightning and has watched his evolution since leaving.
"He appears to have a ton more confidence in Philly than in Tampa. The weight of expectations is totally different, [they're] less in Philly. He's a great story," Feaster said. "My context is that in Tampa he was expected to [and needed to] replace Dan Boyle. In Philly, he is asked to be a member of the band, not lead singer."
Carle said the key to his maturation in Philadelphia has been the confidence the coaching staff has shown in him. He plays with Pronger, but regardless of mistakes, Carle is right back in there as the staff shows a level of assurance that has in turn seen Carle's confidence grow exponentially.
"I think that's been the biggest help for me," he said. "I've obviously found a nice home in Philly."
With Pronger steamrolling his way over Blackhawks players toward what may be his first playoff MVP award, it has been easy to overlook Carle and his contributions. Which seems just fine with the Anchorage, Alaska, native.
"Great guy," Pronger said. "Very quiet, unassuming guy. Obviously confident in his abilities, and he's getting a chance to kind of show what he can do."
Pronger said Carle may get recognized for his offense, but it belies a strong defensive presence, as well.
"He's a very steadying influence on the ice. Makes a great first pass, reads a play well," he said. "I think a lot of times, guys that can make plays and see the ice as well as he does and jumps in the attack, their defensive play gets overlooked a lot. He's obviously playing with me matched up against the top line."
The 25-year-old has a big summer planned. He's marrying his longtime girlfriend -- she's been part of the moves from San Jose to Tampa to Philadelphia -- although the wedding was planned well past the end of the playoff schedule. Just in case.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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