Zdeno Chara was not very noticeable the last three games.
The big defenseman went scoreless during the three-game segment. Chara’s blue line mates drew more eyeballs, whether it was Kevan Miller blowing up Dustin Brown or Torey Krug hammering a power-play slap shot through Jonathan Quick.
But Chara is often at his best when he’s playing a quiet game.
Chara is the biggest man in the league. There isn’t an opponent in the NHL Chara can’t rub out with brute force.
The heart of Chara’s game, however, is efficiency. When he maximizes his positioning, stick skills, and strength, he nullifies scoring chances before they develop.
Miller and Johnny Boychuk are fiercer and more punishing hitters than Chara. But that’s partly because Chara doesn’t have to hit people to claim the puck. By sweeping with his stick or placing himself in a lane, Chara can turn the defensive zone into a conflict-free area.
It is no coincidence that Chara is playing a simple and professional game when the Bruins have regained their rhythm. During their three-game segment — wins over Dallas and Los Angeles, a shootout loss to Chicago — the Bruins leaned hard on their captain. Chara responded.
The Bruins deployed Chara against three dangerous first lines. In Dallas, Chara drew Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Erik Cole. At the United Center, Chara played against Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, and Marian Hossa. On Monday, Chara’s task was to shut down Brown, Anze Kopitar, and Jeff Carter. Chara was on the ice for one even-strength goal: Hossa’s game-opening strike.
“When you’ve got four guys that are young players, you’ve got to rely a lot on your veterans to be at their best,” said coach Claude Julien on Monday, referring to Krug, Miller, Matt Bartkowski, and Zach Trotman. “Zdeno was.”
Chara is averaging 25:08 of ice time per game. Chara played more than that in all three games. Against the Stars, Chara logged 26:26 of action. In Chicago, Chara played 28:08. The following day, after traveling from Chicago to Boston, Chara played 25:17 against the Kings.
This has not been a kind season for Boston’s defensemen. Dennis Seidenberg, Chara’s usual playoff partner, will not play again this season following surgery on his right knee. Adam McQuaid is sidelined for the third time. McQuaid is considered day to day with a leg injury. Dougie Hamilton missed his fourth straight game against LA because of a concussion. Hamilton was unavailable for 10 games in December because of a knee sprain.
The Bruins returned Trotman to Providence Tuesday. The transaction indicates that either Hamilton or McQuaid could be available for Saturday’s game against Philadelphia.
Amid the blue line attrition, Chara is assuming more responsibility. As assistant coach Doug Houda mixes and matches his rotations by sprinkling in the youngsters, Chara is the anchor. Chara and Boychuk skate together as the usual shutdown duo. But Chara also took shifts with Miller and Trotman on Sunday against LA’s second, third, and fourth lines.
Houda, who’s responsible for managing the defense, isn’t the only assistant asking for Chara’s services. Geoff Ward, in charge of the power play, had rolled out Chara as the net-front man on the first unit for most of the season.
But with Hamilton, the point man on the second unit, unavailable because of a concussion, Ward moved around his personnel last Wednesday. On the No. 1 unit, Milan Lucic shifted to the front of the net. Ryan Spooner assumed half-wall duty. Chara replaced Hamilton at the point on the second unit.
Three games later, with Hamilton still missing, Ward decided Chara was too valuable in front. Chara returned to the first unit. The move paid off.
In the first period, with Robyn Regehr off for hooking, Chara planted himself in front of Quick. As Krug wound up for a slap shot from the left circle, Quick tried to peek around Chara to see the release. Quick would have had better luck looking around a garbage truck. By the time Quick saw Krug’s shot, the puck was in the net.
“We don’t score that second goal if he doesn’t do that great job in front of the net, screening their goaltender when Krug shoots that puck,” Julien said. “He had a couple real good scoring chances too in the second period at the side of the net. He was good. He played good defensive hockey and also gave us some good offense.”
The Bruins had a day off Tuesday. This is their longest remaining pause, outside of the Olympic break, for the rest of the season.
Chara will not rest during the Olympics. He will leave early, missing at least one game and perhaps two, to serve as Slovakia’s flag bearer in the Opening Ceremonies. The 36-year-old will captain the Slovakian squad in Sochi next month. If the Slovaks want to medal, Chara will play in every situation.
When Chara and the rest of the Olympians return, the Bruins will enter a wicked, compressed sprint that will make the meat grinder at your local butcher look like a massager.
By then, the Bruins will be seeking reinforcements. It is management’s responsibility to acquire help — specifically, an experienced, shutdown, left-shot defenseman — to complement Chara. Chris Phillips, Chara’s former teammate in Ottawa, fits that profile. The price for such players starts with the standard ask: A pick and a prospect.
The Bruins’ regular-season series with LA is over. They went 1-1-0 against the Kings. They could meet once more in the playoffs. Getting help for Chara would help to make that meeting take place.
. . .
Miller signed a two-year, one-way, $1.6 million extension on Tuesday. The rookie was scheduled to become a restricted free agent at year’s end. The Bruins signed the former University of Vermont defenseman as a free agent on Oct. 21, 2011.
Miller has been efficient as a stay-at-home, right-shot defenseman. He has one goal and one assist in 16 games while averaging 16:52 of ice time. Miller has played on all three pairings and on the penalty kill. In Monday’s 3-2 win over Los Angeles, Miller threw the hit of the game on Brown.
Miller gives the Bruins depth on the right side. Boychuk and McQuaid will be unrestricted after 2014-15.