2013 Stanley Cup: How Worried Should Boston Bruins Be About Zdeno Chara?
Instead of avoiding Zdeno Chara, the Bruins' huge defenseman, the Blackhawks have stopped fearing him. They have played against him as if he was a standard-sized defender instead of a 6'9", 255-pound crusher who can punish them with his overwhelming physical game.
The Blackhawks are hitting Chara when they can and when it makes sense. That strategy has played a key role in winning Games 4 and 5 and taking the series lead, 3-2.
The fact that the Blackhawks have gone after Chara is not a surprise. The Bruins faced this tactic throughout the regular season and during the first round of the playoffs against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The fact that they have been successful at the strategy and that Chara has not punished them in return is somewhat shocking.
It's simply a matter of physics. When Chara is stationary—either in front of the net or by the boards—he is somewhat vulnerable. Physical Blackhawks players like Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw have the advantage of leverage when they initiate contact with a larger player who is not moving his feet. They come into his area with speed, and they can send Chara backwards with solid contact.
Chara can counter this strategy by moving. When Chara has momentum and initiates the contact, nobody can stand up to him. When he dips his shoulder and drives it into a smaller man while skating hard, it's a battle no opponent can win.
But Chara has not been able to do that with great frequency against the Blackhawks, particularly when he has targeted the swift-skating Jonathan Toews and the ultra-quick Patrick Kane.
Toews has a goal and two assists in the last two games, while Kane has scored three goals and an assist.
Toews was hit hard by Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk in Game 5 and did not play in the third period, but Kane shows no signs of slowing down. In addition to his two Game 5 goals, Kane had several other excellent scoring opportunities and could have had three goals or more.
Bruins head coach Claude Julien has acknowledged Kane's ability to move quickly in the offensive zone and create excellent scoring opportunities.
"He is able to go where he wants and put himself in a position to score," Julien said after Game 5. "That's why he is one of the best offensive players in this league."
Much of the Blackhawks' offensive success has been tied to their ability to get the best of Chara. He was on the ice for five Chicago goals in Game 4 and all three in Game 5.
Julien on Chara "just because he's on the ice for those goals doesn't mean they're his fault." #BruinsTalk— Michael Giardi (@MikeGiardi) June 23, 2013
However, despite those numbers, the only goal Chara can be blamed for was Kane's second goal in Game 5. On that goal, Kane's linemate, Bryan Bickell, had the puck behind the net. He made a stellar pass to Kane, who fired the puck from his backhand in tight and popped the water bottle on top of the net.
It was a stellar shot by Kane that Tuukka Rask had no chance to stop. But Chara could have pounded Bickell into the boards and smothered the play before the pass was made. Instead, he looked indecisive and made no move toward Bickell.
Julien said he does not think his team has gotten fatigued by the grinding, physical nature of playing multiple rounds of playoff hockey.
Will Zdeno Chara rebound in Game 6?
"I don't think, physically, we've hit a wall," Julien said. "We're in the fourth round, and a lot of guys are playing through a lot of different things. But I don't think we've hit a wall. Those are things that I can talk about here, but I'd rather let our guys show it tomorrow, and you're going to see we're going to have some pretty good jump.Tomorrow, we'll be ready to play."
He didn't mention Chara by name, but it seems clear that the Bruins will need a better game from him in Game 6 if they are going to survive. If the Blackhawks continue to punish him and use their speed and quickness against him, the Bruins' Stanley Cup journey is likely to come to an end Monday night.
Steve Silverman is a credentialed reporter covering the Stanley Cup Final in Chicago for Bleacher Report.
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