The Bruins scored an early power-play goal. Phil Kessel didn’t score. The Bruins survived an early injury to Adam McQuaid.
They have Zdeno Chara to thank for most of that.
“He was a really good player for us tonight,” coach Claude Julien said after the Bruins’ 3-1 win over visiting Toronto. “He was one of those players who was probably a game-changer.”
The captain scored his third goal of the season. They’ve all come on the power play, where the former point man is working a new full-time position.
When his team is shorthanded, Chara is usually the monster shoving opposing forwards away from his goalie. Now, Chara is inflicting that kind of pain on the power play.
On Saturday, it was Dion Phaneuf’s turn to be abused.
In the first period, with Jay McClement in the box for holding, David Krejci won an offensive-zone faceoff. Chara immediately broke for the front of the net.
First, Chara staked his claim to the net-front ice by muscling Phaneuf out of the way. Then when Jarome Iginla gained control of the puck at the side of the net, Chara held his ground. As Phaneuf broke for Iginla, Chara planted his stick on the ice. Chara hauled in Iginla’s feed and snapped the puck past James Reimer to give the Bruins a 1-0 lead.
“I’m just trying to work really hard, get my possessions, and really be there for loose pucks,” Chara said. “On that goal, lot of work was being done by the other guys, especially Jarome. He made a great second effort. I’ve got an empty net. It’s something that really comes down to outworking those four guys. Simple as that. You can have a lot of skill. But if you don’t work hard, you’re not going to be successful with the puck.”
Less than six months ago, Chara’s man-up work gave the Bruins the confidence to try the big man in front. If not for Chara’s screen on Reimer, Patrice Bergeron may not have scored the game-tying goal against Toronto in Game 7 of their first-round series. After all, Chara had spent most of his NHL power-play career working the point and trying to gun his heater on goal.
Now, his duties are different. Chara is making the net-front transition look easy. It is anything but simple.
It’s hard to jostle with prickly defensemen. It saps precious energy to battle one-on-one for a loose puck. It’s not easy to put a blade on the ice when an opponent is lifting and slashing that stick. But Chara has natural talent to complement his work ethic.
“He’s got good hands to go with his strength and size,” Iginla said. “I was already impressed before I got here playing against him and how he can have that patience or toe-drag out. You don’t get that many goals or points as a D-man without having that offensive ability.”
Some players can go all out on the power play. Milan Lucic, for example, doesn’t kill penalties. Lucic can empty the tank on his power-play shifts, knowing his coach has other defensive-minded players who will assume the ice upon the penalty’s conclusion.
Chara, on the other hand, has to save his stuff. Opposing coaches usually roll out their top offensive guns after a successful kill. Toronto coach Randy Carlyle was no different.
Carlyle’s first post-kill tap is usually on Kessel’s shoulder. As the shutdown ace, Chara must switch gears from power-play net-front presence to stay-at-homer. That job change allows for only a few gulps of oxygen on the bench before Chara is asked to go the other way and keep Kessel off the scoresheet.
“If we start the power play, then I have time to get back out there right after the PP is over,” Chara said. “It’s different when the other group goes first and we go out second. Then it’s something where we have to go without that matchup, or other guys have to handle it for a shift. Then we go back to the matchups.”
Above all else, Chara is about defense. Chara showed it against the Leafs. Chara logged 28:04 of ice time, the most he’s skated in a regulation game this season. As usual, Chara changed the game.
Kessel took the opening faceoff alongside Mason Raymond and Nazem Kadri. But because Chara was also on the ice, Carlyle waved Kessel to the bench only 10 seconds into the night.
Carlyle rolled out Kessel with usual linemates Joffrey Lupul and James van Riemsdyk. But because Julien could counter with Chara, especially with the last change, Carlyle had to rearrange his lines regularly to get Kessel away from his former teammate. Kessel landed three shots in 21:11 of action .
Kessel and his teammate went 0 for 3 on the power play. Chara led all Bruins with 3:46 of shorthanded ice time. The Bruins penalty kill is 7 for 7 in the last two games. According to Julien, Chara was especially good in the Bruins’ 4-1 win over Florida on Tuesday, when the coaching staff instructed the left-side defensemen to stand up the Panthers in the neutral zone.
“He did the best job by far and really took away what we call the slash play, where the guy cuts to the middle, gets a pass, and carries it with speed,” Julien said. “He was able to slow them down that way last game. He standing up and did a great job of getting pucks down to the other end. He did that again tonight in the battles.”