Haggerty: Chara's actions lose the battle, but win the war

Haggerty: Chara's actions lose the battle, but win the war
March 4, 2013, 2:30 am
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BOSTON -- They weren’t the same exact situations, of course.

More than a month ago John Scott and the Buffalo Sabres ran roughshod over the Bruins in what might come to be known as Buffalo’s only shining moment of the season. Scott concussed Shawn Thornton with a few strong rights to the head in the first period, and then decided to throw an elbow at Rich Peverley’s head right in front of the Bruins bench for good measure after ambling out of the penalty box.

Right or wrong Zdeno Chara never acted in that game. Consequently both Chara and the Bruins looked out of sorts for the rest of that game in their undisputed worst loss of the season. Fast forward to Sunday night, and the Bruins held a tidy one goal lead on the Montreal Canadiens with less than five minutes to go in the second period.

That’s when Montreal defenseman Alexei Emelin caught Tyler Seguin with a cross-check to the ribs right in front of the Boston bench. The force of the check snapped the Habs’ attackers stick just as Seguin went down in obvious, howling pain. It just so happens the 21-year-old was having one of his best games of the season and had already racked up a goal and an assist in the first two periods.

So Chara didn’t wait to see if a penalty was going to be called, or if Seguin was seriously injured on the dirty Emelin play. He simply saw a cold, calculated act against a Bruins player with a target on his back. So Chara went right for the corner and smacked into Emelin into the boards and starting roughing up the Russian defenseman for trying to hurt one of Boston’s most skilled players.

"The main thing was I saw that Tyler was hurt. We have to protect each other,” said Chara. “I'll do it for anybody but in the situation, it was natural for me to react. He is one of our best players.

“We really are brothers over here. We play for each other. We protect each other. That's the unity we always talk about.”

Despite the heat of the moment-type circumstances, Chara said he was hoping to avoid the instigator penalty by waiting to drop his gloves until Emelin had engaged him in a fight. The 6-foot-9 Bruins defenseman rained down right hands upon Emelin as he scrambled to cover up, and eventually the referees intervened to restore peace and order.

What happened next infuriated the Bruins, delighted the Canadiens and mystified onlookers that saw things pretty clearly.  

Emelin got away with a nasty cross-checking play designed to slow down one of Boston’s best players, and Chara was slapped with 17 minutes worth of penalties consistent with an instigator call.

All of that for standing up for a teammate that had been callously targeted by one of Montreal’s few truly physical players.

The Habs ploy worked as Montreal potted a pair of goals in the third period while Chara was mired in the penalty box and ended up taking home a victory that leaves them as sole leaders in the Northeast Division. On its face it would appear that Chara stomped right into a sneaky Montreal trap designed to shake Boston’s discipline.

But sometimes some things are worth more than a simple two points during a hockey season. The Bruins are a team that’s always had each other’s backs and has always stood up for one another when a teammate has been wronged. It wasn’t going to do Seguin any good if the Bruins waited until later in the period for Gregory Campbell to challenge one of Montreal’s players, or for a proper response at a game somewhere down the line

That would have simply opened the door for the Habs to target more of the Bruins players with impunity and – perhaps more importantly -- without fear of retribution as they tried to parlay retaliation penalties into a comeback.

“Zdeno [Chara] did what he had to do. When a guy cross-checks one of your good players in the ribs and breaks his stick, and if the referees aren’t going to call it, then we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do here,” said Claude Julien. “That’s what he did. I support that. It’s a teammate protecting a teammate and he was one of our good players tonight too, Tyler [Seguin]. We’re a team that reacts to those kinds of things. When people take liberties on our good players, we go to their defense.”

Some will probably argue that it shouldn’t have been Chara to take action because he’s too valuable to the team. There is danger he could hurt himself in a fight and the Bruins certainly are a lesser defensive team when the 6-foot-9 intimidator misses almost a full period of play.

The scrum in front of the net on David Desharnais’ game-winning goal might never have happened if Chara was guarding the front of the net. But there are also a handful of times in a hockey season when a team’s captain must use actions that are as symbolic as they are effective.

Chara and the Bruins might have lost the battle to Montreal when it came to taking first place in the Northeast Division and Eastern Conference. But Seguin knows that his biggest, baddest teammate always has his back when times get tough, and that therefore makes the skill forward bigger, tougher and stronger by proxy.

“I didn’t see it, but everybody told me. That’s the character of our team,” said Seguin. “Everybody always has each other’s backs. He’s the first guy I went up to after I went back to the dressing room after the period.”

That kind of trust, appreciation and bond between teammates is more important than one solitary win or less during the season. It is exactly the kind of emotions that galvanized the Bruins two years ago when they won the Cup, and it’s exactly why Sunday night was just one of those times when Chara had to execute some actions becoming of a hockey team’s captain.

It might have helped the Habs walk out of the Garden as the first team aside from the Buffalo Sabres to hand the Bruins a regulation loss this season, but it might just have made them even stronger as a team moving forward.