How Heavily Will Boston Bruins Lean on Zdeno Chara Against New York Rangers?
But with head coach Claude Julien facing the possibility of having to insert three rookie defensemen into his lineup for the Bruins' second-round series against the New York Rangers because of injuries to veterans, he's going to need Chara to take on an even bigger role in the team's success.
With a depleted blue line in Monday's Game 7 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs, Chara was forced to play a playoff career high 35:46 of ice time (38 shifts), which even for a man who keeps himself in great shape, is a heavy burden at this stage of the season. It was an effort that his teammates greatly appreciated.
"I think everyone knows how good he is and how fit he is," said Bruins rookie defenseman Dougie Hamilton after Monday's game. "So we were just back there laughing at his 35 minutes. And it’s obviously just a credit to him for being able to do that all game, and working that hard and I think being a big part of the comeback."
The 6'9" defenseman leads all NHL players with 28:54 of ice time per game during the playoffs, but for the Bruins to beat a talented Rangers team with a top-six forward group that includes a lot of speed, size and skill, the B's captain will probably have to log at least 30 minutes in every game of this series.
Is Chara the best defenseman in the NHL?
However, Julien is confident that his top defenseman will be able to overcome this sort of challenge.
"We know Zdeno can take a lot of minutes. He’s got the body, he’s got the frame, he’s got the conditioning to be able to do that," said Julien.
"But at the same time, you also have to utilize your players and have some trust in them. How much you use them obviously depends on how well they’re playing, but it certainly won’t be because we’re making them nervous."
The players that Julien will depend on include rookies Matt Bartkowski, Torey Krug (who was called up from the AHL earlier this week) and Hamilton. These three players have just five games of playoff experience between them, with the chance that Krug will make his postseason debut on Thursday.
The reason why these rookies will see their roles increase is because veteran defensemen Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference and Wade Redden are all battling injuries. Ference and Redden were scratched in Game 7, while Seidenberg picked up a lower-body injury on his second shift in the first period and was able to play just 37 seconds.
None of these players skated with the team at Wednesday's practice, and Julien has not given the media many details on their status for Thursday's series opener.
"You saw none of them on the ice today. That’s the situation. I’m in the training room every day talking to my trainers. A lot of that stuff is day-to-day until we get them through. There’s injuries, there’s no hiding that fact, except that sometimes you can get players through those and sometimes you can’t.
If one or more of these three veterans are unable to play against the Rangers in Game 1, Julien will need to play Chara more than usual at even strength and in special teams situations. Having three rookie D-men in the lineup is not an ideal situation given their lack of playoff experience, especially when the opponent is a team with an incredible amount of experience and skill such as the Rangers.
With that said, Chara is going to matched up against the Blueshirts' top two lines quite a bit in this series, and he might have to take on this challenge without his shut-down partner Seidenberg alongside him. This means that Chara will shoulder much of the responsibility in defending top Rangers forwards like Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan. He will be the Bruins' only shut-down defenseman on the roster in the event that Seidenberg doesn't play.
That's a lot to ask of one player, but as the most difficult defenseman in the NHL to play against, there's no one else the Bruins would rather have in that role.
The main concern for Julien is that his 36-year-old workhorse (with over 1,000 games of NHL experience) wears down over the course of this series because New York does a fantastic job of tiring its opponents physically with a heavy style of play and lots of checking.
The trade deadline acquisitions of forwards Ryane Clowe, Derek Dorsett and Derick Brassard made the Rangers a deeper and more physical team, and one of these players' goals will be to rough up Chara as much as possible.
Chara hit the TD Garden ice a lot more than usual in the first round, and this is because the Leafs made a strong effort to play physical against the veteran defenseman. If there's a team that could successfully execute this strategy, even better than Toronto did, it's the Rangers because of their size and strength on all four lines.
In addition to his consistently strong play in his own zone, Chara also makes an impact in offensive situations, most notably on the power play. His booming slap shot and ability to move the puck from the point makes him a valuable part of the Bruins' power play, which they will need to be effective for Boston to score enough goals on an elite goaltender like Rangers superstar Henrik Lundqvist.
There isn't a situation in which Chara won't be at or near the top of Julien's list of best available options. He leads all Bruins players during the playoffs in time on ice at even strength and on the penalty kill, while ranking third in power-play time on ice.
In Monday's Game 7, he led the team in all three categories, and it wouldn't be surprising if this happened in every game against the Rangers.
Will Boston reach the Eastern Conference Finals?
Unless the Bruins are fortunate enough to get two of their three injured defenseman back in the lineup for Thursday, they will have no choice but to play Chara for 30-plus minutes.
Chara's ability to play at a high level while logging a ton of minutes against an elite team will greatly impact the Bruins' chances of reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for the second time in three seasons.
This isn't going to be an easy series for Chara, but if there's anyone in the NHL capable of succeeding in this type of role, it's the Bruins captain.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston. He's also a credentialed reporter at the 2013 NHL playoffs in Boston. Nick has covered the Bruins since the 2010-11 season. All quotes obtained firsthand.
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