Flexing muscle bolsters Bruins
WILMINGTON - When the Bruins set down the New Jersey Devils, 4-1, Sunday, they did it to the sweet sounds of hammering and pounding in their defensive zone.
Zdeno Chara, the 6-foot-9-inch linchpin of the team, and Aaron Ward, a player with three Stanley Cup rings and a punishing style, were paired on defense again, providing a base of operations as the Bruins banged out a victory against their closest competitor in the Eastern Conference, just 5 points back.
Chara and Ward generally took on New Jersey's top line - Travis Zajac between Jamie Langenbrunner and Zach Parise - and kept it contained. The trio had four shots.
"I think certain games require certain responses," said Ward. "It's much like the Detroit game [a 4-1 victory Nov. 29], with [Pavel] Datsyuk and [Henrik] Zetterberg. Early on, you have to get them to pick their heads up and understand that you're going to try and limit their time.
"You're never going to run them into the boards - they're not successful in this league because that happens - but you do have to make them think that they're going to be limited on time. And it's not going to be stick-checking."
Off the ice, Chara always seems to be in a hurry, moving methodically through postgame rituals to get to the next phase of his workout. He is polite, but his answers are clipped.
Ward, on the other hand, relaxes into analysis, picking apart the game for reporters, and sometimes rethinking his responses when another wave of questioners comes along.
"I think especially now, coming close to the playoffs, everybody's picking up that physical play," said Chara. "I think it's just natural that every team is playing with more of an edge. It's very competitive right now, everybody's battling for standing, where they're going to end up."
If the physical play begins with the veteran defensemen, it must resonate throughout the team for the Bruins to have success against the elite teams, as they did Sunday.
"There were no passengers," said Marc Savard.
In the words of Shawn Thornton, "It was a big win and a lot of fun out there - back to the way it was earlier in the season. Guys were chirping, guys were skating, guys were banging, and playing with a lot of confidence."
With only nine games left in the regular season, the Bruins need consistent physical presence, without jeopardizing their health.
"The toughest part about that one is you've got to play with a disciplined style," said Ward. "Guys have to understand you can't always go in for a big hit, because they're going to roll off it or they're going to get past it."
At the same time, the players are realizing they can't segue in and out of the style that lifted them to the top of the conference.
"You don't just turn things on," said Ward. "Much like the problems we've encountered the last few weeks - you don't just turn it on, you have to build habits."
Ward said the Bruins play well when they are full of confidence but absent swagger.
"You're not overthinking the game too much; it becomes second nature," he said. "You don't find yourself chasing in the zone, you are in the right position, you're anticipating where you should be, and things fall into place."
"I like to try to be physical," said defenseman Mark Stuart. "Guys play different games, and you don't expect everybody to go out there and kill people. There's puck-moving defensemen too. As long as everybody's doing their job, you're all set.
"I'm definitely physical. I've got to be physical if I'm going to be successful."
Matt Hunwick has a different view on the Bruins defense, because he's also spent a few games at forward.
"You need a mix of both [styles]," said Hunwick. "Obviously, it helps our forwards if our D can jump up and keep plays alive at the blue line, keep continuous pressure. It's part of being physical, and I think in the last game, our defensemen did that.
"That's playoff hockey, so I'm sure you'll see a lot more of that as the next two weeks progress."
General manager Peter Chiarelli, who watched practice from the Ristuccia Arena stands, said, "I liked the way we played against New Jersey. We kept a lot of their shots outside, we had effort, and we had execution. The improvement on execution was on the power play, completing passes, finishing checks.
"It's the players that have got to execute. It's like finishing checks: As easy and as simple as it sounds, to go into 60 minutes finishing every check, that's a large task."
David Krejci and Chuck Kobasew had the day off for "maintenance." Defenseman Steve Montador took Kobasew's place on the Patrice Bergeron-Mark Recchi line and Byron Bitz subbed for Krejci with Blake Wheeler and Michael Ryder . . . Coach Claude Julien said he could not remember having a five-day break between games, as the Bruins do this week, with their next contest Saturday against Toronto. "It's something very different from last year, when we had 16 games in 30 days in March," he said. "You've got to keep fresh, but at the same time, you have to maintain, you can't let your team slide. We obviously feel pretty good about our last game, and somehow we've got to bring that into Saturday's game and there's a big gap between the games." Julien doesn't want to overlook an opportunity to improve. "It's our last chance to kind of fine-tune ourselves with quality practices," he said. "It doesn't mean you can't do it in other ways, but with quality practices, this is a good week for that." Julien said he will decide day by day whether to practice or take extra rest. Practice is on for this morning.
Barbara Matson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.