HE’S STILL ZEE MAN
Hulking veteran Chara remains ‘backbone’ of Bruins defence
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
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.