Studied by all on the Bruins’ blue line, jumping into the offensive zone has become an everyday practice under Professor Claude Julien. The goal is to create more scoring opportunities. But as 6-foot-9, 255-pound student of the game Zdeno Chara skated full speed to the back of Atlanta’s net on Dec. 13 at the Garden, one thing became clear: There was no need to cover for him at the point. Chara was not goal-oriented.
As any NHL player or coach will tell you, there’s a right and a wrong time to drop the gloves. But when another team’s 6-foot-7, 235-pound defenseman is bullying your top goal scorer in your own building, a statement needs to be made.
Chara’s statement was felt dramatically throughout the building, as he abandoned all defensive duties and sprinted after Atlanta’s Boris Valabik with just under four minutes to play in the second period of a 2-1 game.
“It’s the No. 1 thing to be playing as a team and stick up for each other,” said the Bruins’ captain. “That, for sure, is one of the main identities of this team.”
Valabik attempted to manhandle first-line winger Phil Kessel behind the Thrashers’ net. With the Bruins’ top offensive threat growing more and more frustrated, the only thing the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Kessel could do was give Valabik a two-hander across the shin pads, which didn’t faze the big man.
With Kessel in need of help, the captain came calling. No words were exchanged. It was time to send a message.
“[Fighting] is not my first priority,” said Chara. “Obviously if there’s a time and place for it in a game, you have to choose that specific time. And I thought it was really necessary.”
Chara’s reach was too much for his fellow Slovak. But because he went out of his way to hunt down Valabik, Chara ended up in the penalty box for 17 minutes (10-minute misconduct, five for fighting, two for instigating), compared to Valabik’s seven minutes (five for fighting, two for roughing). With Andrew Ference (leg) and Aaron Ward (foot) both injured, losing another top defenseman in a close game would normally be cause for concern, but even so, Chara’s call to action showed why he’s wearing the “C.”
“No doubt, the one thing you don’t like to see is losing one of your best defensemen and your captain for 17 minutes,” said Julien. “But at that stage, and at that moment with what was going on, it was the right thing to do. [Valabik] was going after our best goal scorer and took some cheap shots. There was definitely a size difference, and Zdeno decided that he was going to step in for his teammate.”
The Bruins added to their 2-1 lead with a power-play goal from defenseman Dennis Wideman just over two minutes after Chara’s uplifting rescue mission.
“For Z to stand up, I think it showed the respect, it showed that we’re accountable, and we’re going to come here and not be pushed around in our own building,” said goaltender Manny Fernandez. “Phil is a very important part of our team at this point. If it wasn’t Z, it probably would have been somebody else. But Z seems to be the backbone and the father of us all, so if we’re going to be picked on, he’s going to stand in there and make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Chara entered the week with six goals, nine assists, and a plus-6 rating. But the Valabik bout marked only his second fight of the year. Coming off shoulder surgery in the off-season, Chara is now the healthy leader of a depleted defensive unit. He has helped the first-place Bruins to an 11-2-1 record since Ference went down with a fractured right tibia on Nov. 13, scoring five of his six goals during that 14-game span.
And if need be, he’s always ready to throw down, a sentiment that’s rubbed off on the entire team.
“It says a lot about him, coming to my defense like that,” said Kessel. “He’s a great captain and a great guy. It just shows what type of team guy he really is.”
Danny Picard covers the Bruins for OT and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org