WASHINGTON — On-ice secrets are few in the NHL, perhaps scarcer than ever this season, what with the schedule pared by roughly one-third to 56 games. The Bruins and Capitals will face each other for a ninth time since Jan. 30 when they face off here Saturday night in Game 1 of the playoffs.
Here on the cusp of what could be a two-month Stanley Cup run, what possibly could be left for the clubs to find out about one another?
“Not really any schematic secrets you can try,” John Carlson, the Capitals’ top offensive defenseman, said early Thursday afternoon after practice.
Nonetheless, the Capitals will enter the series with their resident 6-foot-9-inch Bruins cheat sheet, Zdeno Chara, hired this season after 14 years, 1,023 games, and 1,001 practice sessions (give or take a maintenance day) on the Boston backline. Big Z stands tall possibly as the Capitals’ one-man secret decoder ring.
Chara saw it all in Boston. Big Z, for years considered an extension of the Boston coach staff, knows every nuance, every subtlety in the Black and Gold lineup. And now he’s on the other side. His other-side-of-the-wall intel was one of the inherent risks when the Bruins let Chara walk as a free agent, convinced their lineup didn’t have enough work to keep the former Norris Trophy winner busy.
In the proud Chara’s universe, it was akin to the moon being told it no longer held sway over the ocean’s tides.
“You probably could have guessed it was going to play out this way,” said former teammate Brad Marchand, who joined the Bruins amid Chara’s fourth season in Black and Gold. “Obviously it adds another story line to the series.”
According to Marchand, he witnessed Chara sharing Bruins-specific traits with Capitals teammates during the clubs’ regular-season matchups. Chara, Marchand said, knows what the Bruins do “on certain plays” and “knows all the code names that we use.”
“You could see him talking to the guys about the plays we were going to do,” added Marchand. “So it definitely can cause some challenges at times, but it’s the playoffs, you’ve got to work through that … just another element of the series that will make it fun and entertaining.”
Whatever Bruins wisdom he can impart on his red-white-and-blue teammates, Chara’s game alone has spoken volumes here in the District. The Bruins told him he would not dress in the season-opening lineup and he would be spotted in (maybe) as needed in a No. 7 or 8 reserve role.
Yeah, hold my pilsner, the Slovak star no doubt muttered to himself as he drove out of the North End at the end of December to begin his late-in-life kick at the Cup.
Teamed here all season with No. 3 partner Nick Jensen, Chara played in all but one regular-season game for coach Peter Laviolette, averaged a healthy 18:19 in ice time, and led the club with an average 2:41 on the penalty kill. Same ol’ Z, albeit the age-44 version, relying ever more on his expansive wingspan and abundant situational smarts than whatever youthful jazz there is left to squeeze out of his tall oak legs.
“I think he’s delivered everything he said he was going to do,” Laviolette said in a recent Zoom session. “He was going to come here and he was going to be a factor on the ice. He was going to be a positive influence in the locker room, a leader in the locker room. He was going to lead by example by the way he lives his life — the way he plays the game and prepares for the game. At no point has he disappointed us in what he’s delivered this year.”
Mike Milbury, the general manager on Long Island when Chara broke into the league as an Islander only after the invention of the wheel, is not one to believe that Big Z’s dossier full of Boston intel can have a significant impact on the series.
“I suppose if there’s anything he can give them,” mused Milbury, the ex-Boston blue liner, coach and assistant GM, “it’s maybe how to push somebody’s button, like, say, how to get under Marchand’s skin, or something like that.”
More significant, believes Milbury, is what the Trencin Tower of Power can still deliver on the ice.
“I mean, [Patrice] Bergeron’s been around the league a long time, people know him. People know Marchand. People know [David] Krejci,” Milbury said. “I doubt there’s any secrets he can reveal that you can’t see on a videotape. But I think his presence as a leader in the locker room and his presence on the ice, as a big body that can shut people down, is much more important that any kind of leaks that he might provide.”
NBC’s Pierre McGuire disagrees. He believes Chara can inform teammates about fixed plays off faceoffs, as well as penalty-killing and forechecking schemes. In the loser-goes-home-for-good playoffs, McGuire believes any tidbit is helpful.
“He knows everything about Krejci and Bergeron and Marchand,” noted McGuire, whose ice-level post allows him close-up scrutiny of every player’s move. “He’ll have tendencies to give to the defensemen in particular, about moves they like to perform or different ways they attack the net. Now, obviously he won’t know as much about Taylor Hall or about Craig Smith, but he’ll know a lot about the rest of that lineup.”
McGuire recalled his one season (1991-92) on the Penguins’ staff, when coach Scotty Bowman would plumb roster players for info on their old teams.
“Sometimes it bore fruit and sometimes it didn’t,” McGuire said. “But I would say in Chara’s case, because of the longevity of the player, the leadership abilities of the player, and the fact that he was an extension of the Boston coaching staff for years, I think that makes him very valuable to the Washington Capitals in this series.”
Bruins president Cam Neely playfully scoffed at Marchand noting that Chara knew Bruins “code” words on the ice.
“There’s no code words!” said a chuckling Neely.
Nonetheless, Neely acknowledged, the Bruins are well aware of the years Chara logged in the Hub of Hockey and that he knows “some tendencies.”
“Also on the flip side, guys certainly know how Zdeno is going to play and what to expect from him,” added Neely, “and how to exploit that a little bit, as well.”
Factored into the Bruins telling Chara that they viewed him as a part-timer was the fact that he had slowed. No one in the organization doubted his toughness, his will, his reach, his want. But organizationally they wanted to push the pace from the back end, believing it was high time to draw rookies Jeremy Lauzon and Jakub Zboril into the mix.
Lauzon and Zboril, left shots like Chara, proved to have their fits and starts. In large part to patch over their deficiencies, general manager Don Sweeney was forced to hire Jarred Tinordi (via waivers) and Mike Reilly (via April 12 trade) to fill the void that would not have been there had Chara simply been made to feel more needed during offseason talks.
Meanwhile, Chara played with standard metronomic efficiency with his new team, the Caps needing to suit up only eight blue liners all season. The scrambling Bruins were forced to suit up a baker’s dozen, with their newbies clearly needing more time in the oven.
Milbury, channeling a bit of Neely, figures the Bruins can try to make use of their intel on Chara in this series. They know he’s a touch slower — Milbury: “No surprise at his age” — and they know he can be forced into tough situations on stickhandling plays deep in his zone, in the corner, along the rear wall.
No one 6-9, with a stick longer than Tom Wilson’s rap sheet, wants to be stuffed into a phone booth.
“I don’t know if pounding him is going to make any kind of a difference,” said Milbury, eschewing the idea of trying to wear down Chara with heavy hits off dump-in plays. “But you know his assets, his size, is also a little of a liability occasionally when you get on him quickly, because it’s tough for him to maneuver. So putting pressure on him is always something I would have suggested. Get to him fast. Make him try to move the puck.”
The puck is about to drop on the playoffs. The Bruins and Chara, for years as intertwined as the spokes and B on the iconic Boston logo, have gone their separate ways.
Now the divorce decree becomes official, amid some parting icy stares and a few muttered secrets.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.