CHICAGO – The joke is on the Chicago Blackhawks if they think they can “target” or “expose” a weakness in 6-foot-9 Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara.
Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews was certainly feeling confident after finally scoring his second goal of the playoffs in the Hawks’ 6-5 overtime win against the Bruins, and stridently offered that the Blackhawks have discovered a formula of success against the best defensive player in the league. For Toews and the Blackhawks, it’s the exact opposite of most strategies against the B’s shutdown defenseman where opponents normally steer clear of Chara’s corner with dumps, passes and rushes into the offensive zone.
Every NHL team’s game plan is to normally stay far away from Chara’s area of the ice in the defensive zone, and make plays away from the giant presence of No. 33 when he is on the ice.
But that’s not the tune Chicago is warbling as they prepare for Saturday night’s Game 5 at the United Center, and hope that history repeats itself for a Bruins team that hadn’t surrendered six goals in a playoff game since 1996 – a span of 121 playoff games for the Boston organization.
Toews said attacking Chara with speed, skill and force is the way to beat the Bruins captain, and pointed to the fact the B’s captain was on the ice for five of Chicago’s six goals scored during the game.
The idea being that pounding him physically and attacking him with speed targets one of the weak areas of his game (his skating), and keeps him from ladling out the punishment. It’s also the strategy that Pittsburgh intended to implement during the Eastern Conference Finals, but that backfired spectacularly when their attempts to intimidate or pound the captain only infuriated the Bruins while taking them out of their game.
The Bruins players were somewhere between pissed off and bemused when apprised of the Chicago strategy on Chara.
"Honestly, I don't know where they would get that scouting report from," said Milan Lucic during off-day availability at the team hotel in Chicago. “[Chara] definitely doesn't mind the physical play at all. Once again, I don't know where they would get that scouting report from."
Lucic’s reaction was pretty consistent with the other Bruins players two days after their Game 4 defeat on home ice. There was some curiosity as to whether it was more a strategy to distract Chara and the Bruins from their normally stifling defensive game, and was some kind of tactic to get under their skin with the three most important games of the season on tap.
It certainly won’t work for Chara, who has been in full Terminator mode for the entire playoffs with clipped one sentence answers to media questions and a fierce determination to avoid all distractions. Chara has been in that all-business mindset since the opening days of the first series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and it’s served him well as the NHL’s second-leading scorer among defensemen with 14 points (2 goals, 12 assists) and a plus-10 rating.
If the Toews’ strategy is somehow true then the Chicago captain has uncovered a secret formula that every other NHL team has overlooked in Chara’s first 13 years in the league, but that’s Toews’ story and he’s sticking to it. Perhaps the reasoning is also there that Chara can be run into the ground at 36 years old after averaging 29:59 of ice time during the playoffs.
But the Blackhawks will have to conquer Chara and the rest of the Bruins for more than one game to prove that anything is more than aberrational, and there’s every chance Toews has drawn his full and undivided attention at this point.
“[Chara] does a lot of good things, and he uses his size and his reach to his advantage, and 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,” said Jonathan Toews. “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.
“We use our speed. “You saw the goal that Marcus Kruger scored, [Michael Frolik] never stopped moving his feet and got around him — great play by those two guys to finish off that play. It’s a small example of the way we can expose him.”
It’s more likely that Chicago caught Chara, Seidenberg and Patrice Bergeron all experiencing a rare off night all at the same time, and there is slim-to-zero chance those three defensive stalwarts will combine for a minus-7 rating again in the series.
Chara has been a minus player four times in 20 playoff games this spring, and did it twice against the Rangers in the second round of the playoffs. The Bruins have lost three of those four minus games for Chara this spring.
Similarly, Bergeron has been a minus player just four times during this current playoff run. Both players tend to bounce back strongly from subpar defensive efforts, whether it was their mistakes individually, or if they’re guilty by association on the ice for a goal against.
“We have a bunch of players on this team that take a lot of pride in their defense, and take it personally when the puck ends up in the back of the net with them on the ice,” said Bergeron. “The layers weren’t there [in Game 4], and we paid the price for that. We know what we did wrong, and what we need to get back to.”
It's true Chara and the Bruins defense did experience their share of difficulty against a speedy Toronto hockey club in the first round, but there’s a reason the Bruins led all Eastern Conference teams with a 2.05 goals against average during the postseason.
Chara is at the top of the list for the reasons why Boston is so effective defensively on a yearly basis.
“Zee’s one of the best defenseman in the league and a guy that big and that strong you don’t really want to play around with a whole lot,” said Brad Marchand. “They’re welcome to say whatever they want. We are just worried about how we have to play in the room. Zee steps up every night and plays his best so we can expect that.”
Toews and the Blackhawks can take one thing to the bank: if Chara plays his best in Game 5 coming off a couple of rest days prior to Saturday night, then there won’t be any brazen Blackhawks players sharing their top secret formula for beating the 6-foot-9 behemoth. Game 5 will tell whether Toews’ “discovery” is a secret blueprint to conquering Chara, or a one-game aberration that allowed the Blackhawks to generate a little offense against Boston’s stingy defense.
The smart money says not to bet on the Blackhawks potting another six goals, and instead a Mr. T-style prediction of pain for Toews and Company.