Jimmy Howard enjoyed five full seasons of practicing with Tomas Holmstrom’s back end just about rubbing his nose. Perhaps Howard’s six-year, $31.75 million contract includes back hazard pay for suffering such punishment.
But practicing against one of the game’s best net-front men was not enough to steel Howard for what he faced Saturday night at TD Garden.
Zdeno Chara, the biggest and strongest man in the NHL, is now the down-low behemoth on the Bruins’ No. 1 power-play unit. On four power plays, Chara staked his claim to the ice in front of Howard. The Detroit goalie had less breathing room than inside a typical Allston apartment.
The power play went 2 for 4 — Chara screened Howard on Torey Krug’s goal in the first, and beat the goalie with a backhander in the third — to lead the Bruins to a 4-1 win.
“It’s not easy when there’s somebody who’s [6 feet 9 inches] standing in front of you,” Howard said. “It’s something you’ve got to figure out and find a way to try and find the puck. It’s extremely difficult with him in front.”
For most of his career, Chara has manned the blue line on the power play. Chara distributes the puck adequately and is also known for owning one of the league’s hardest shots.
But the competition he repeatedly claimed in one of those All-Star Game gimmicks is literally set up for the strongman. The puck lies flat on the ice like a Titleist waiting to be thwacked. Chara leans into his slapper and brings down the hammer on his triple-digit heater.
The next time a situation like that happens in a real game will be the first.
Chara was once asked how he’d prefer his stick, provided cost, technology, or any other variable were no object. Chara answered that his dream stick would put the puck wherever he wanted. In other words, even Chara acknowledged that his aim had the dependability of the Fung Wah bus. Last year, the Bruins hemmed and hawed about using Patrice Bergeron in front because of the danger of Chara’s shot.
The brief down-low glimpses of Chara in Boston and Ottawa showcased a defenseman with a surprisingly slick stick. Of course, Chara can blot out any goalie’s sightlines. But he’s nimble at retrieving pucks. Chara’s strength guarantees him a win in just about every puck race.
“I talked to [David Krejci] about it,” said Krug. “He said, ‘What should I do with the puck?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, just give it to Z, throw it in the corner for him.’ He’s going to win the battle nine out of 10 times.”
Deploying Chara as the net-front man is a setup that’s always intrigued the Bruins. In previous seasons, during six-on-five end-of-game situations, Chara rotated from the point to the front. Chara’s screen on James Reimer in Game 7 against Toronto last season helped Bergeron score the tying goal.
But the Bruins didn’t pull the trigger on the shift until now. They had secondary concerns regarding the pounding Chara would take down low. The position is a magnet for hurtling pucks. Claude Julien needed Chara taking friendly fire like he needed a puck to his own head.
The No. 1 issue, however, was the absence of better point options. The Bruins didn’t think they had a trustworthy point man who could run the power play and hammer pucks on goal.
Krug is the No. 5 defenseman. But Krug’s primary job title is power-play quarterback for the first unit. Krug is everything a coach wants in his point man. Krug pushes the pace, sees the ice with panoramic vision, and puts shots on net.
At 9:11 of the first period, after taking a power-play pass from Milan Lucic, Krug had space at the top of circles. With Chara set up in front, Krug gripped and ripped a screamer into the net to give the Bruins a 1-0 lead. It was Krug’s first regular-season goal.
In the third, the Bruins went on their fourth power play (Johan Franzen, interference). This time, Krug was on the dishing end. Krug spotted Chara swinging through center ice. Krug snapped the puck onto Chara’s tape. Chara gained the offensive zone and lifted a backhander over Howard at 12:17 to make it a 4-1 game.
During his time in Boston, Julien has never had a PP QB like Krug.
“Zdeno’s on the point because we felt we didn’t have a ton of other options,” Julien explained. “Now we do. You’ve added [Dougie] Hamilton and Krug. The mobility has increased back there. That allows us to move [Chara] to the position where we thought he’d be better suited for us.”
As the point man, Chara going back for a puck was slower than dial up. In a typical first period, by the time Chara had retrieved the puck, the concession stands were shutting off their taps.
Krug, on the other hand, is 4G-fast. Krug sprints back for the puck and races it back into offensive territory. Krug pushes the pace so briskly that penalty killers don’t have time to take a breath, much less execute a quick shift change.
While Krug is retrieving pucks, Chara is serving as the stretch man. Chara’s job is to hang loose at the offensive blue line as a long-distance threat. It is not a taxing task. The training staff could hand Chara a cup of coffee to sip before his grinding begins.
Chara’s real PP work is hard. It’s difficult to joust with defensemen and absorb slashes from goalies. Being the biggest man in the game, though, blunts some of that pain.