WILMINGTON — The Bruins were down to their final two minutes of the season. They needed two goals to force overtime. Claude Julien asked his two most important players to deliver.
Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron did just that.
With 1:22 remaining in regulation against Toronto in Game 7, Milan Lucic scored a net-front goal. Lucic was in position to scoop in the rebound of a Chara boomer. Bergeron was credited with a secondary assist.
At 19:09, with Chara stationed in front, Bergeron whistled the game-tying goal past Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer.
Starting Saturday in Pittsburgh, the captain and alternate captain will have to submit even more heroics if the Bruins want to hang with the Penguins.
Chara and Bergeron were offensive difference-makers against Toronto in Game 7. In the Eastern Conference finals, Chara and Bergeron must do their best work on defense. Both have proven that playing without the puck is part of their identities.
Chara is a previous Norris Trophy winner as the league’s best all-around defenseman. He is considered the league’s ace shutdown blue liner. Against the Rangers, Chara helped turn Rick Nash into an afterthought.
In the first round, Toronto coach Randy Carlyle did everything he could to get Phil Kessel out of Chara’s clutches.
If only Julien could split Chara in two. A pair of 6-foot-9-inch, 255-pound strongmen would serve the Bruins well.
Somehow, Chara and the Bruins must fend off Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, to say nothing of the centers’ flammable linemates. When the Penguins forwards buzz through center ice with pace and purpose, five Charas wouldn’t do much good.
“If you give them room in the neutral zone, they’ve got players that can make things happen,” Julien said.
Chara may be the league’s tallest man with the NHL’s longest stick, but even those qualities won’t allow Chara to defend two star centers at once.
Chara’s usual postseason sidekick has been Dennis Seidenberg. The two were paired for the first round against Toronto, just as they were for the two previous playoff runs. But they were only reunited in Game 5 against the Rangers when Seidenberg returned from a lower-body injury.
To start the Pittsburgh series, they may be split up once more.
During Friday’s practice at Ristuccia Arena, Chara skated with Johnny Boychuk. Seidenberg was on Matt Bartkowski’s right side. The third pairing of Torey Krug and Adam McQuaid remained intact.
If the Bruins split Chara and Seidenberg for Game 1, they will, in theory, boast better defensive balance. The Chara-Seidenberg duo creates a top-heavy blue line. A four-line offensive dynamo like Pittsburgh feasts on bottom pairings.
The Bruins could match Chara and Boychuk against Pittsburgh’s No. 2 line of Malkin between Jarome Iginla and James Neal. They are beefy, burly forwards that are better-suited for Chara’s shutdown skills.
Quick, elusive forwards can throw Chara off his game. In Game 4 against the Rangers, shifty center Derek Stepan picked Chara’s pocket behind the Bruins net to score a pivotal goal.
If Chara and Boychuk man up against Malkin, Bartkowski and Seidenberg will have to take on Crosby and wingmen Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. It is a tall task.
A week off has given Seidenberg additional healing time. But Seidenberg might still have rust on his skates from missing the first four games of the second round.
Also, Seidenberg and Bartkowski have not played together regularly. Bartkowski and Boychuk, in comparison, had good chemistry against the Rangers as the second-pairing defensemen.
If Bartkowski and Seidenberg draw Crosby’s line, it would reflect the confidence the Bruins have in Bergeron as a defensive center. Bergeron is the reigning Selke Trophy winner as the league’s premier defensive forward and is one of the three finalists this season.
“Whether his game is a great game or just a good game, his effort and everything else is always there at 100 percent,” said Julien. “He doesn’t cheat you as a club. He doesn’t cheat his teammates. He doesn’t cheat anybody. He doesn’t cheat himself.
“He’s very demanding, and that’s what good players are made of.”
One of Bergeron’s strengths is on the draw. In the playoffs, Bergeron has won 63.5 percent of his faceoffs. Crosby has won 51.4 percent.
The two centers split their two regular-season showdowns. On March 17, in Pittsburgh’s 2-1 win, Crosby won five of eight faceoffs against Bergeron. Five days earlier, in the Bruins’ 3-2 loss to Pittsburgh, Bergeron swiped seven of 13 draws against Crosby.
If Bergeron can best Crosby on the drops, the Bruins can start shifts with the puck more often. They would rather be in that position than chasing Crosby and his sharpshooting linemates.
But the Penguins will have their chances. They will play with the puck. In those situations, the Bruins must close in and initiate turnovers to spark their own offense. When it comes to creating offense out of defense, Chara and Bergeron are as good as any in the league.
“If you don’t pay attention to your game defensively, it’s going to end up costing you,” Julien said. “But if you do, you may end up with some good offensive opportunities.
“I’ve said it all along. Our offense thrives on how good a defense we play. When we turn pucks over, that’s when we become dangerous.”