CHICAGO — The setup is one that would curl the toes of every NHL coach. The ace shutdown defenseman in the league takes one shift. One of the top defensive forwards hits the ice for the next shift.
Claude Julien is a fortunate coach.
Zdeno Chara, the 2009 winner of the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best all-around defenseman, is regularly matched against the opponent’s most dangerous forward. Patrice Bergeron, the 2012 winner of the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward, draws the assignment of shutting down the second-most threatening attacker. Their defensive awareness is one reason the Bruins could claim a 3-2 series lead in Game 5 on Saturday at the United Center.
The Bruins’ system centers on forcing turnovers and creating offense from defense. Because the Bruins have two of the premier defensive-minded players at their respective positions, it’s no surprise that their offense hums at high pace when Chara and Bergeron are clicking.
“We have arguably the best defensive defenseman in the league and arguably the best [defensive forward],” said Milan Lucic. “It helps us strategy-wise. Even for our line, we try and be defensively responsible. Usually, being defensively responsible turns into offensive chances. I think we got away from it a little too much the last game, letting in six goals. Hopefully we can make an adjustment there.”
The Bruins are one of two teams featuring Norris and Selke winners. Chicago, appropriately, is the other.
Jonathan Toews claimed the Selke earlier this month by beating out Bergeron. Duncan Keith took home the Norris in 2010.
But Keith is a more offensive-minded defenseman than Chara. The Blackhawks have deployed their second pairing of Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson against opposing top lines in the playoffs. Oduya and Hjalmarsson have drawn Lucic, David Krejci, and Nathan Horton. Keith and Brent Seabrook have taken most of their shifts against Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and Jaromir Jagr.
Julien can count on Chara and Bergeron to frustrate two skilled lines. Julien has rolled out Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, along with the Krejci line, against Toews.
In Games 1 and 2, Toews centered the first line between Brandon Saad and Marian Hossa. In Game 3, when Hossa was unavailable because of an upper-body injury, Toews centered fourth-liners Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik. The Bruins still rolled out Chara and Krejci against Toews.
Chicago’s formation in Game 3 underscored how seriously they considered Chara to be a threat. Coach Joel Quenneville was wary of placing top-six forwards alongside Toews for fear of creating a top-heavy lineup that Chara plus the Krejci line could neutralize.
“It helps when you have one of the best defensemen behind you,” Krejci said of Chara. “They’re always going to make the good pass. They’re always going to find you. They’re going to make the smart play. It’s good. But I feel like all our six D’s, they’re pretty experienced right now. We’ve all been practicing and playing together for a few years now. Personally, I feel pretty comfortable with whoever’s behind me.”
In turn, Bergeron and the second defensive pairing of Andrew Ference and Johnny Boychuk have manned up against the No. 2 line. For the first two games, Chicago sent out a second line of Patrick Sharp, Michal Handzus, and Patrick Kane. In Game 3, Saad moved down with Handzus and Kane. In Game 4, Handzus centered Sharp and Hossa.
The formula paid off in the three previous rounds. Chara and Krejci matched up against Phil Kessel. The second pairing plus Bergeron’s line attacked James van Riemsdyk. It continued in Rounds 2 and 3. Chara took Rick Nash and Evgeni Malkin. Bergeron matched up against Ryan Callahan and Sidney Crosby.
In Game 4, facing a possible 3-1 series hole, Quenneville brushed aside his caution by reuniting Bryan Bickell, Toews, and Kane. Toews and Kane responded by submitting their best offensive efforts of the series. Both forwards scored their first goals of the series. All three were on the ice for Seabrook’s overtime winner.
Chara was on the ice for five of Chicago’s six goals.
“He does a lot of good things, and he uses his size and his reach to his advantage,” Toews said after Game 4. “I think maybe at times in the first couple games, we were giving him a little bit too much respect by trying to keep the puck away from him. He’s not a guy that we should be afraid of. We should go at him, protect the puck from him, make plays around him and through him.”
Seabrook’s winner took place with both of Boston’s defensive whizzes on the ice. Assuming the Bickell-Toews-Kane line remains intact for Game 5, it’s possible that the Bruins could counter with Chara and Bergeron on the same shift.
“There have been times where they’ve played together,” Julien said of Chara and Bergeron. “I think David’s line, for the most part in the playoffs, when you look at their plus/minuses, have given us that as well. At the end of the day, the line that’s out against the other line has just got to be better. So if that’s not the perfect matchup, it doesn’t really matter to me. I know a lot of people seem to think that I’m making the hard match, and the hard match is probably coming more from the back end than the front end. I trust a lot of our forward lines, and a lot of them have gone against top lines.”