HE’S STILL ZEE MAN

Hulk­ing vet­eran Chara re­mains ‘back­bone’ of Bru­ins de­fence

Ottawa Sun - - SPORTS - MICHAEL TRAIKOS [email protected]­media.com @Michael_Traikos

There was an au­di­ble gasp amongst the sold-out crowd at TD Gar­den in Bos­ton last week when Wash­ing­ton’s Alex Ovechkin caught Zdeno Chara with a hit along the boards, and then pro­ceeded to dump the Bru­ins de­fence­man into the vis­i­tors’ bench.

To some, Gul­liver had fi­nally fallen. But given the com­pa­ra­ble size of the two play­ers — Ovechkin is 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, while Chara is 6-foot-9 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, as well as 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.”

But that was then. To­day, the Chara you see 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 he dropped the gloves was on March 1 and it’s been more than a decade since he racked up 100-plus penalty min­utes.

It’s also been a while since he flirted with scor­ing 20 goals — he has three goals and two as­sists in 18 games this sea­son — or had his name in the Nor­ris Tro­phy con­ver­sa­tion.

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 a stick that seems to stretch the length of the ice, the vet­eran is a big rea­son why 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 out 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 Chara’s de­fence part­ner, Char­lie McAvoy. “He’s a safety value 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 to be­gin with. Now that he’s older, it’s nat­u­ral that 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 is also aware of his own lim­i­ta­tions.

“They help each other,” said Bru­ins head coach Bruce Cas­sidy. “Zee’s a smart guy. He sees the way the game’s go­ing with a lot of the stretch ten­den­cies with guys try­ing to get be­hind you all the time. If that hap­pens, a foot race is not go­ing to al­ways work in his favour, so he’s been able to po­si­tion him­self. He’s just fig­ur­ing out how he can sur­vive that part of it with these younger, faster guys.”

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.”

In other words, 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 even 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.”

Ob­vi­ously he’s gi­nor­mous and tough to play against ... 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.

Maple Leafs’ Aus­ton Matthews

CLAUS AN­DER­SEN/GETTY IMAGES

Bru­ins de­fence­man Zdeno Chara (right) tries to clear Maple Leafs for­ward Wil­liam Ny­lan­der from in front of Bos­ton’s net on Satur­day night in Toronto. Chara fin­ished the game with an as­sist and a plus-1 rat­ing.

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