By Joe Haggerty
BOSTON Zdeno Chara is the one and only irreplaceable piece for the Boston Bruins.
The 6-foot-9 behemoth on skates, chugging along with his 25 plus minutes a night, is the biggest Bostonweapon on the power play with his eight power play goalsand a regular participant on the penalty kill unit as well.He provides so much of the intimidating aura embraced by the Big Bad Bruins that it's not an exaggeration to say he puts the Big and Bad in the moniker.
So withChara unable to lace them up for Saturday nights Game 2 against the Montreal Canadiens due to flu-like systems and severe dehydration that had him sent to the hospital on Friday night, there was nobody among Bostons defensemen corps capable of stepping up and stepping in for the absent Chara in a must-win scenario.
There were plenty of careless mistakes and harmful gaffes all over the ice by an overwhelmed blueline staff without their fearless big leader, and it showed to ugly degreein Bostons 3-1 loss to the Habs on the Garden ice.
Whilebeleaguered defensemen like Johnny Boychuk, Dennis Seidenberg and Andrew Ference all struggled with turnovers and shoddy net-front coverage while being force-fed ice time and wave after wave of speedy Montreal attackers, the struggles were to be expected.
When its impossible to replace one elite caliber player with a group of lesser hockey talents, its instead imperative that a teams second elite player pick up the slack for the missing Chara. Vezina Trophy favorite Tim Thomas had a challenge on his plate to really pick up his goaltending game with big Chara unable to answer the bell, and lead his Boston team to a victory on home ice.
But instead the 36-year-old Bs goaltender and three-time All-Starchoked on it. Thomas had a chance to steal the game for Boston while everything was flying around him in the crease, and he instead allowed three goals -- and two juicy, unforgivable rebounds -- on 26 shots in yet another defeat at the hands of the hated Habs.
Hes 6-foot-9 guy with an 8-foot reach that can skate really well and hits incredibly hard, and on top of that has one of the hardest shots in the league, said Thomas when asked how much the team missed Charas services. We know that. It was our job to step up for him tonight and we didnt do it."Correction: Thomas didn't do it.
Chara was the sick Bruins player, but Thomas basically puked all over his skates when he allowed a pair of juicy rebounds in the first and second period to open and close the scoring for the Canadiens. Though the Black and Gold are a very different team than either the Washington Capitals or the Pittsburgh Penguins fromlast season's playoffs, theyre really starting to take on the hang-doglook of those two exasperated hockey clubs while going up against the very-same Montreal unit this spring looking to spoil their fun.
It was up to Thomas to step into the void and play like a marvelousgoaltender that posted an NHL-record .938 save percentage during the regular season, and possiblypick up a scattered Bs defensemen corps for one single night. It was as big a must-win as a postseason game can be in a non-elimination scenario with Montreals Bell Centre looming in the immediate future, and Thomas once again came up woefullyshort when his team needed greatnessin the playoffs.
Claude Julien was trying not to throw his star-studded goaltender under the bus with Tuukka Rask chomping at the bit to jump into the fray, but it was clear the Bs coach wasnt happy with Thomas results. Instead Julien opted not to talk about his goaltender's performance when asked about an evaluation -- not exactly a ringing endorsement for Thomas as he scrambled through the opening minutes of the game and then couldn't pull off the big save at the big moment.
Ive said that all along in the playoffs were going to talk about our team, said Julien, who watched Thomas made 23 saves. Were certainly not going to talk about individuals in any negative way. If there is something that has to be dealt with, it will be dealt with internally.
I think its important for us to do those things in the playoffs. And right now is not a time to jump all over anybody. And Tim Thomas has been a great goaltender for us all year and we expect him to continue to be that for us in the playoffs.
The Bruins goalie was dancing around and scrambling frenetically in the opening minutes, and Thomas coughed upa rebound of a James Wisniewski shot directly to a hard-charging Mike Cammalleri. The Habs mighty mite beat a stumbling Johnny Boychuk to the loose puck and the keyspot on the ice after a Boychuk turnover in the neutral zone started the whole play, and it was 1-0 lickety-split.
Less than two minutes later Dennis Seidenberg was off for interference and Mathieu Darche converted a nifty Cammalleri cross-ice pass on the power play to make it 2-0 while Thomas was stillmuch too active around the net. Just as the B's skaters were jumpy and scattered in front of him during a tight opening minutes of Game 2, Thomas was just as guilty of it.
Both Thomas and the Bruins defense settled into the game after that despite being down by a pair of goals, and it looked like the Bruins goalie made the game-changing play when he stoned Tomas Plekanec on a lone breakaway midway through the second period. That was the Thomas that fearlessly led Boston all season, and had something to prove after losing his starting job between the pipes last season.
There was a palpable shift in the momentum following Thomas big doublesave on Plekanec's opening shot and rebound, and the Bruins capitalized on it with picture perfect passing that ultimately led to a Patrice Bergeron score to make it 2-1.
But then came the moment of uglytruth for both goalie and hockey club.The elite goaltender made a game-saving stop on Plekanecwhile stepping up in his teams time of dire need,but Thomas wasnt able to pull it off it twice in a row. A Dennis Seidenberg stretch pass was intercepted by the swift-skating Canadiens, and that turned into a Lars Eller shot that hand-cuffedthe Boston goaltender. Hecouldnt handle the initial shot after it skimmed off Seidenberg's thigh pad, and asecond damaging rebound bounced off to his right side. Yannick Weber once againbeata stumblingBoychuk to the puck for another Montreal goal, and that effectively ripped the heart out of Boston.
It left Thomas muttering phrases right out of the Bill Belichick handbook as he attempted to put the pieces together a good 10 minutes starting straight ahead and muttering to rookie goalie Anton Khudobinbefore reporters finally approachedhim. Thomas was curt with his words and guarded with his thoughts, and there was the rare look of defeat in the defiant goaltender's intelligent eyes.
"Well, its easy to accept because it is. It is what it is, said Thomas. Weve got our backs against the wall, and well see how we respond. The proof is in the pudding at this point."
The game was as good as over at that point with a power play thats 0-for-7 for the two-game series and top offensive line that isnt functioning with any kind of regularity. With so many players struggling and Chara ashen-faced and ailing, Saturday night was the time for Thomas to have his shining playoff moment with the Bruins at the exact right time in the series.Instead Thomas slipped into the tank right along with the rest of the Bs hockey club, and the end is nearing for a Big Bad Bruins team that wasteeming with potential and possibilities this spring.Thomas might only have the Vezina to look forward to this spring and summer if things don't reverse themselves in a big way next week in his house of personal horrors at the Bell Centre.