CHARA’S STYLE MORE BRAIN THAN BRAWN
Boston’s big iconic defenceman remains a commanding presence even at age 41
There was an audible gasp among the sold-out crowd at TD Garden in Boston last week when Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin caught Zdeno Chara with a hit along the boards, then dumped the Bruins defenceman into the visitors’ bench.
To some, Gulliver had finally fallen. But given the comparable sizes of the two players — Ovechkin is six-foot-three and 235 pounds while Chara goes six-foot-nine and 250 pounds — it wasn’t exactly David toppling Goliath.
More like Hulk Hogan body slamming Andre the Giant.
For once, Chara looked human. In some ways, the 41-year-old might have looked old.
It wasn’t that long ago when Chara was the one dishing out the punishment, when he would single-handedly cause opponents to avoid the right side of the ice altogether. There was the time when he broke Max Pacioretty’s neck by driving his head into the stanchion that divides the boards with the glass.
There was his 2004 fight with Bryan McCabe, when Chara treated the former Maple Leafs defenceman as though he were his chew toy.
As one player once joked of Chara, “it’s OK to try and hit him. But you better apologize for it afterwards.”
That was then. The Chara you see now is one of the oldest players in the league.
He’s still a beast who can make you pay with a hit or an undetected cross-check. But the last time he dropped the gloves was on March 1 and it’s been more than a decade since he racked up 100-plus penalty minutes.
And yet, despite missing a month this season because of a knee injury and whispers that this year could be his last, Chara remains the backbone of Boston’s defence. He may not score as many goals or strike fear in his opponents with his Hulk-like rage. But with his incredible size and hockey smarts, as well as a stick that seems to stretch the length of the ice, the veteran is a big reason no team — particularly the Maple Leafs — wants to play the Bruins in the playoffs.
“Obviously he’s ginormous and tough to play against,” said Toronto’s Auston Matthews.
“With him, you’re probably getting a couple of feet less of room there, especially coming down in corners and on the rush. You’ve got to make sure you’re aware of his reach because he’s got that extra two feet of stick to poke the puck.”
It was in last year’s playoffs when Chara, along with Selke Trophy-winning centre Patrice Bergeron, neutralized Toronto’s top line and limited Matthews to just a goal and an assist in a first-round loss.
On Saturday, Chara was at it again. Matching up against the John Tavares-Mitch Marner line, he finished the night with an assist — he would have had a second if Brad Marchand had not missed an open net on a shot — and a plus-1 rating in a 3-2 win over the Leafs.
“Positionally, he’s so sound,” said defence partner Charlie McAvoy. “He’s a safety valve out there for me. I think when I play with him — obviously, I don’t want to make any mistakes, but hockey is a game of mistakes and it’s just so encouraging that when you have him out there you know he’s got your back. He’s so responsible, so good defensively.”
Playing with McAvoy might have extended Chara’s career by another few years.
After all, Chara was never the best skater. Now that he’s older, it’s natural he’s lost a step. But you don’t really notice it because he’s got a 21-year-old to chase down loose pucks and he’s also aware of his own limitations.
When asked if he’s had to rely more on his smarts with every year that passes, Chara seemed insulted by the question.
“I think that’s nothing to do with the age,” said Chara, who is in the final year of his contract.
“Sometimes you have to be skating a little bit more to bridge the gaps or close the gaps. Sometimes the plays come to you. It really matters how you read the play. Just use the experience.”
The Chara you see today might not be as physically intimidating as the one that would have made Ovechkin pay for putting him into the enemy bench.
But he’s a lot more calculating. And in some ways, that’s scarier.
“I don’t know if he’s retiring this year — if he is, I need to get a stick — but if he’s playing, I’ll ask next year,” said Leafs head coach Mike Babcock.
“He’s a good player. He can play as long as he wants. I mean, when Nick Lidstrom left the game, I don’t know how old he was (he was 42), but he was still one of the best players in the league. Chara’s one of the best in the league.”
You’ve got to make sure you’re aware of his reach because he’s got that extra two feet of stick to poke the puck.
Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara tumbles into the Capitals bench courtesy of an Alex Ovechkin check during action in Boston on Thursday. Chara might not be as physical as he once was, but at age 41 he remains one of the league’s best on the blue-line.