fb-pixel Skip to main content
Fluto Shinzawa | On Hockey

Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara back to peak form

Bruins captain Zdeno Chara has returned to his knockout form; Tampa Bay's Cedric Paquette was on the receiving end Jan. 13.Jim Davis/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

By Thursday, when the Bruins play their first game after the All-Star break against the Islanders, eight days will have passed since Zdeno Chara thumped an opponent with purpose.

An eight-day breather is usually a good thing for 37-year-old shutdown defensemen. Chara did not have to defend his title as the NHL’s hardest shooter on Saturday. The six-time All-Star didn’t participate in Sunday’s silliness at Columbus’s Nationwide Arena, which is a match best left unburned for a player leading his team in ice time per game (22:49).

But Chara is a unique athlete. The captain thrives on repetitions. There are many moving parts on his 6-foot-9-inch, 255-pound frame. Before the break, those components had been in synch for the first time all season.

Advertisement



The Bruins are 6-1-3 in their last 10 games. Their run in January has lifted them into eighth place in the Eastern Conference. They have a comfortable 7-point lead on the ninth-place Panthers, who have four games in hand. Tuukka Rask is 5-1-3 with a 1.63 goals-against average and a .946 save percentage this month.

It’s no coincidence that all of this is taking place with Chara approaching the level that made him the Norris Trophy runner-up last year.

During this 10-game segment, the Bruins have scored 18 five-on-five goals while allowing 11. Chara has been on the ice for only three five-on-five goals against, 27.3 percent of the team’s total: on Jan. 13 against Tampa Bay (Steven Stamkos) and on Jan. 7 against Pittsburgh (Evgeni Malkin, Beau Bennett).

The players he’s challenged at five-on-five and kept off the scoresheet include Nathan MacKinnon, Tyler Seguin, Ryan Johansen, Rick Nash, Claude Giroux, Jaromir Jagr, Eric Staal, and Clarke MacArthur. Chara is positioning himself better. He’s reading well off Dougie Hamilton, his top-pairing partner. He’s been exceptional with his stick, which he’s used to close down passing lanes and swat pucks off forwards’ blades.

Advertisement



Coach Claude Julien leaned hard on Chara in the final two games before the break. Chara played 24:19 against Dallas, including 7:36 on the penalty kill. Seguin and Jamie Benn, Chara’s primary competition, combined for 15 shots on goal. But none slipped through Rask.

The next night, following an early-morning touchdown in Denver, Chara played 25:34. Once again, Chara led his team with 5:40 of shorthanded ice time. Chara killed two straight five-on-three Colorado power plays during a shift that lasted 2:26.

Chara’s been a difficult defenseman to play against in January. Chara’s Corsi For, which measures the number of shot attempts the Bruins take and allow when he’s on the ice, is back up to 56.8 percent, eighth-highest in the NHL among defensemen with at least 25 appearances.

It shows the Bruins are controlling the puck more than chasing it when he’s taking shifts, even against opposing top players.

Chara is back to playing a straightforward game, which makes life anything but simple for the opposition.

This hasn’t been a memorable season for Chara. He has a history of slow starts. This fall was no exception.

Chara was on the ice for seven of the 16 five-on-five goals (43.8 percent) the Bruins allowed in their first nine games. In comparison, the Bruins scored 14 times in five-on-five play. Chara had an especially rough night against Montreal on Oct. 16, when Brendan Gallagher scored twice and P.A. Parenteau added a strike on Chara’s watch in the Canadiens’ 6-4 thumping of the Bruins at the Bell Centre.

Advertisement



Then on Oct. 23 against the Islanders, the captain tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee when he threw a hit on John Tavares. Chara did not require surgery to fix the tear. But he missed 19 games because of the injury. When he returned, the efficient and intimidating Chara was nowhere to be seen.

In the first 10 games following his return, opponents outscored the Bruins in five-on-five situations, 22-19. Chara was on the ice for eight of the 22 goals against (36.7 percent).

His timing was off. He wasn’t skating well. He strayed out of position in the defensive zone. Chara seemed bewildered by why the skills he had seemingly mastered were no longer under his control.

In retrospect, Chara needed a good 10 games to regain strength following his layoff, reclaim his timing, and find his confidence again.

He’s helped to give the Bruins some of their bite back again. He’s allowed Dennis Seidenberg to drop back to the second pairing with Adam McQuaid.

The Bruins are in a good spot in the standings. But their schedule is not easy. They resume play on Thursday against the second-place Islanders. Four of their next six games are against top-eight teams.

The Bruins were scheduled to practice on Tuesday, but the session was canceled because of the storm. They’ll only have one tuneup, on Wednesday, before traveling to Long Island.

Advertisement



Players don’t find their pace right away after an eight-day layoff. It might take longer for Chara, who does not respond well to time away from action. The Bruins don’t want to wait too long for the captain to slip back into his groove.


Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.