DETROIT – In order to taste success in the postseason, many things have to fall into place for a hockey club.
Clearly there needs to be contributions from all across the roster. Good play from the goaltender is another prerequisite. But perhaps nothing is more important than for a team’s best players to elevate their game, and accentuate the strengths that made the team a playoff contender in the first place.
Zdeno Chara has stepped up and done that for the Bruins as the Black and Gold has played shutdown hockey against an overmatched Red Wings to seize a 2-1 lead in the series.
“We’re defending well,” said Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli. “We’ve used eight defensemen now. [Game 2] was a heavy game where we defended well. I thought [Matt] Bartkowski had a good game, and I thought [Chara] was terrific the way he defended [Tuesday night]. I’m just watching how he’s closing on guys. The defending is a mentality, and we’ve got to going right now. It’s an important part of winning.”
The Bruins have held Detroit to just two goals, and few scoring chances, in three games while turning Boston’s defensive slot area into a “no-trespassing” zone. The scoring chances simply aren’t coming from the middle of the ice, and that’s because Detroit’s best forwards can’t win battles for a long enough period to set up in the slot.
It’s no coincidence that the Bruins' only loss was the game when Chara faltered for one shift, and stumbled while Pavel Datsyuk unleashed his breathtaking speed and skill for a third period game-winner in Game 1. Otherwise Chara has been the defensive tower of power and has been part of what’s making Boston vs. Detroit look like men against boys to Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock.
“We looked like kids to me [in Game 3],” said Babcock of his Wings. “I really think that with the exception of Game 1 they’ve done an exceptional job of pushing us away from the middle of the ice. We’ve been on the outside, and to me that’s not good enough. You need to push harder, and you need to be on the inside. You need to make the goalie work way more.
“You’ve got to get on the inside and really find out if [Tuukka] Rask is doing anything for them. We haven’t got to him. We all know he’s a world-class goalie. He looks great in warm-up, [but] that’s where he’s getting the most shots.”
Babcock clearly meant the last bit as a swat at his own team’s inability to battle in front of the Boston net, but it merits mentioning that Chara isn’t blocking out the sun in front of the net during pregame warm-ups.
Chara has just four shots on goal, and the one he scored came on a power play from in front of the net in Game 2, so offense clearly hasn’t been a priority for the Bruins captain. Instead it’s been about playing 24:36 per game and being on the ice 90 percent of the time that Datsyuk, Detroit's biggest threat, is out there. Datsyuk has just four shots on net in the three games, and he’s been locked down for most of the two Bruin victories.
Whether it’s been Patrice Bergeron locked up with Datsyuk in the two games in Boston, or David Krejci getting the most shifts against the magical Russian center in Game 3 at Joe Louis Arena, Chara has been the one shutdown constant against Detroit’s most dangerous playmaker.
When Datsyuk does get freed up for a chance, like he did for a backhander through traffic in the latter moments of Game 3, Rask was able to flash a leg pad on the shot.
Chara is also second on the Bruins with 3:38 of ice time per game on the penalty kill and that’s pushed the Red Wings down to a weak 0-for-9 thus far on the man advantage . . . a huge factor in the series. That’s business as usual for a Bruins team that pulled the same kind of shutout defensive job against the high-powered Pittsburgh Penguins in a four-game sweep last season, another stretch where Chara flexed his muscles in the defensive zone.
Jarome Iginla remembers that kind of airtight defensive effort from Chara and Co. last season in the conference finals while he was a member of thePenguins. It’s fair to say he’s glad to be on the other side this time around, watching frustration build on the Red Wings’ faces.
“It’s part of the playoffs. It’s been a tight series both ways. We’re fighting for each chance, and for scoring chances,” said Iginla. “It’s definitely part of the hockey we want to play, and being physical and tight [in the defensive zone]. We like that. It’s part of our goal. We want to make it as hard as we can physically, and that also goes with scoring chances and getting to the front of the net.
“Our D is a big part of our team. They’re very hard. We try to be hard on guys, but in front of our net our guys are doing a great job of being strong, blocking shots and moving guys out.”
Clearly it’s a team effort with layers upon layers for the Black and Gold, but it can many times come down to the stoppers as the last lines of defense for Boston: Chara and Rask.
“It’s up to us to continue to work hard without the puck,” said coach Claude Julien. “We’ve done a great job of backchecking, and we’ve done a good job of having numbers coming back. It’s been about having a six-man defensive unit out there. You saw [in Game 3] that [Babcock] was putting Datsyuk out there against the Krejci line, where in Boston we had Bergeron on him. I think a lot of those guys on the Krejci line led the league in plus/minus, and it means they play both ends of the ice.
“They take pride in that. So we’ve got lots players and lines that can take care of business, and that we have a lot of trust in out there.”
That trust is biggest and most prominent when it comes to the 6-foot-9 behemoth that stands in wait for Datsyuk, and that won’t be changing in a playoff series that’s starting to tilt toward Boston.