Chara was an impact player again
The giant wasn’t asleep, or even close to nodding off, but for the first month of the new season, Bruins captain Zdeno Chara was a somewhat slumbering version of his Norris Trophy-winning self. He was caught somewhere between being the dominating Big Z and just being a whole bunch of little z’s . . . zzzz . . . zzz . . . zz.
After four-plus weeks of being good here, OK there, and only moderately effective overall, Chara played with his familiar thump, aggression, and smarts yesterday, piling up a game-high eight hits and pairing with Derek Morris to turn Edmonton’s big line - Dustin Penner, Shawn Horcoff, and Ales Hemsky - into a miniaturized version of itself.
The result: a 2-0 win over the Oilers at the Garden, a Tuukka Rask shutout, and a revitalized, dominating Chara.
“I heard some comments,’’ said Chara, reflecting on Claude Julien’s remarks following Friday’s workout, when the coach made it clear his captain could be much better. “He said I was good. But you know, when you are a top player in the league, good is not good enough. You have to be perfect every game.
“That’s the way it is. You accept it if you are one of the better players in the league.’’
That is especially the case for Chara, who, without a doubt, was the most dominating and commanding defensive presence in the game in 2008-09. The 6-foot-9-inch Trencin Tower of power owned his side of the ice and nearly Boston’s entire defensive zone, night after night stifling opposing offenses with his smothering defense. When the puck dropped again this October, he was back at his post, filling that same No. 33 sweater, but his game was not nearly the same.
But yesterday, his feet were moving again, carrying him with speed to all the familiar places - low in his defensive circle, over along the side wall, behind the net. He was in constant confrontation mode with the 6-foot-4-inch Penner, trading pushes, shoves, and shots. His long stick was active, forever reaching for pucks, forcing Oilers to choose different trade routes when getting closer to Rask’s net.
In the end, Edmonton’s top line mustered only two shots on net, and the rest of the Oilers managed only 17. Nothing like a noisy, brutish Chara to make for a quiet offense.
“One of the things you have to be is fast, to get on people,’’ noted Chara. “And get into battles.
“Guys like Hemsky, Penner, and Horcoff, you don’t want to give them time and space. Overall, you want to be more aggressive.’’
The proof of that came in the hit column, where Chara posted that 8-spot after delivering a modest 20 smacks in his first 11 games. Perennially one of the league leaders for contact, Chara yesterday morning was but a virtual also-ran on the NHL’s hit list. Even at game’s end, ex-Bruin Brad Stuart was higher on the list with 32, not to mention another former Bostonian, Andrew Alberts, with 38.
Chara’s value to the Bruins is measured in the hits he makes and the goals he prevents. His own goals and assists are the fortunate residue of everything else he does out there.
“He had a dominant night, and we played right into his hands,’’ said Oilers coach Pat Quinn, who favors a run-and-gun offense, one that was turned into a popgun by Chara and crew. “We wanted to carry the puck through him. With a guy like that, you don’t carry the puck through him - you make him have to turn, you work against his inadequacies.’’
It was the fourth time in 14 games this season that the Oilers have been held under 20 shots. They carried too much mail directly to Chara’s post office and for exactly 25:01 of the 60 minutes, he stamped “return to sender’’ on every one of their foreheads.
“I didn’t feel frustrated,’’ said Chara, reflecting on his play over the first four weeks. “But as a team, we haven’t played our best so far. We win a game, then lose . . . win, lose . . . win, lose . . . we have to get our consistency into place and get on a streak like last year. You want to build that confidence, game to game.’’
Morris liked the new look of the old Z. He could see off the hop that Chara was relaxed, looser, more intent on being Chara Classic and not the Chara Light version who reported for 2009-10 duty.
“He puts a lot of pressure on himself,’’ noted Morris. “He doesn’t worry about just the first play, but the second and the third play. Tonight he was more focused on the first play. He simplified it a little bit and it was great to see.’’
A dozen games into a new season, the Bruins are 6-5-1, and their captain has reported for duty.
“Certainly, it makes our team that much better,’’ said Julien. “That’s the responsibility that comes with wanting to be that type of player. It’s OK to want to be an elite player, but you have to take the responsibilities that come with it.
“As I mentioned, he’s never been bad, he’s been OK. Unfortunately for an elite player like him, everybody wants him to be more than just OK.’’
Just like one of those Chara hits, the coach’s message obviously landed.