It’s Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Bruins and Rangers have no secrets. Their truths and tendencies are written on the subway walls here in the Hub and in Manhattan in the hours before they meet on Causeway Street Thursday night in Game 1.
The Bruins rely on a heavy, power game. Exhibit A: hulking wingers Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton, both of whom finally peeled away their futile regular-season cocoons to play like iron butterflies (totals: 6-10—16) in seven games vs. Toronto.
The Rangers trust in superb netminder Henrik Lundqvist and a near-religious devotion to shot-blocking, led by the likes of defensemen Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, who totaled 44 blocked shots in their seven games vs. Washington. No surprise, the Rangers topped the shot-blocking charts in Round 1 with 161, followed by the Leafs (141) and Capitals (130).
But there is shot-blocking and then there is fronting the searing, piercing offerings of Zdeno Chara, the Trencin Tower of Power. Chara five times has won the league’s annual hardest-shot competition, and did so most recently in the 2012 All-Star skills competition with a career-best blast of 108.8 miles per hour.
Chara won his other four titles with an average top-end heater of 103.7 miles per hour. Big Z appears to be just heating up. Fine news if you’re enlisted as one of the 18 Blueshirts available for coach John Tortorella to have stand in front of or kneel down before that unfriendly fire.
“I think, knowing their coach fairly well, he doesn’t care,’’ said Bruins coach Claude Julien, asked if, as a coach, he would be reluctant to have his players block Chara’s blasts. “He’s going to have everybody blocking shots. There’s not too often I can tell you I’m 100 percent sure, but I’m 100 percent sure that’s the message he’ll be giving them.
“That’s their business. That’s what they want to do. It’s served them well. It’s got them where they are right now.’’
Despite that success (good for a sixth seed in the East), it can’t be easy for one of those New York defensemen or forwards to look up toward the blue line with Chara holding the puck and ready to unload, or stepping full throttle into a one-time slapper.
It would be one thing if they could count on each of his shots, no matter how mighty, coming in at, say, kneecap level. That’s just not the case. Chara’s a bit of, shall we say, a loose 6-foot-9-inch cannon when it comes to firing at the net.
Consider: In seven games against the Leafs, Chara shot upward of seven times a game (45 total), with just over half of those shots (25) making it to the net. The Leafs blocked 13 of his attempts, while another seven missed the target.
In the regular season, he shot 248 times, with less than half of those (119) finding their target. The opposition blocked 75, and 54 were logged as misfires. Chara’s shots are strong, foreboding, menacing, and can be a bit erratic, which only makes them more of a nightmare.
“I probably wouldn’t want to do that,’’ said Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask, asked how he’d like to take on Chara’s shot without the advantage of standard-issue goalie gear.
“No . . . thank . . . you,’’ said Boston defenseman Johnny Boychuk, asked how he’d like to stand in front of a Chara blaster. “I mean, even if you block it the right way, it’s going to hurt. And you know he’s going to shoot it.
“You don’t ever want to hurt people, obviously, but at the same time you don’t want them to think you’re going to take it easy. If someone was asking me what to do, I’d advise them not to block Z’s shots.’’
That’s not an option, of course. The Tortorella road to a Cup is paved in broken bones, endless yards of suturing string, and 55-gallon drums full of pain-killers and anti-inflammatories. He is the coaching brotherhood’s king of pain, his defensive strategy shaped around stacking bodies in tight through the slot, closing down shooting lanes, and spray-painting mirrors in the dressing room so players can’t see the resultant damage inflicted.
All that said, the maniacal Ranger method is effective. No more proof needed than Alex Ovechkin’s final line, a paltry 1-1—2 against them in Round 1. Ovechkin, arguably the game’s MVP this season, as well as its top goal scorer (32), rarely got what’s referred to as a good look against Lundqvist. He landed 30 shots in some 145 minutes of ice time, and for all of that he took home one playoff goal for the summer.
To break through the Great Wall of Tortorella, the Bruins will be left to try these options:
■ Play-make around, and ideally through, the clogged slot area with quick passes and five-man rotations. With enough movement, shooting and passing lanes theoretically become available.
■ Send forwards in front of the net as quickly as possible, ideally ahead of Ranger blue liners, in hopes of gaining a positional advantage in the low slot, perhaps forcing defensemen to commit penalties when trying to clear bodies from in front of Lundqvist.
■ Fire shots or make smart dumps to the rear wall, forcing the defensemen to spin around in pursuit of pucks. Heavy contact along the rear wall can lead to loose pucks, then passes, and the chance that a Rangers forward hasn’t slipped down low to cover for the otherwise occupied defensemen.
■ Fake shots up high, hoping that shot-blockers drop or at least flinch. Just getting the slight edge on one shot-blocker can lead to an open shooting lane or a pass that finds a player who has the net in sight.
■ When all else fails, get the puck to Chara up near the blue line and tell him to let it rip. Rangers forwards will try to clip pucks from his stick before he unloads. Woe to those who get to him a fraction late with a poke check or choose to trust their health and welfare to the protective integrity of shinguards and shoulder pads.
“I’m certainly not going to ask him to take anything off his shot because they’re blocking,’’ mused Julien. “If they want to block them, he’s going to shoot them.’’
There are no secrets. The Rangers and Bruins, their roots deep in Original Six history, each stand but a dozen wins from the Stanley Cup. The Rangers are going to block. The Bruins are going to shoot.
Though not solely his job, it could be up to Chara to provide the way through, one fallen Ranger at a time.