Boston Bruins fans, or at least ones from New England, will have a chance to watch their captain clash with their country in Team USA’s Olympic opener Thursday. Zdeno Chara figures to play much the same role for the opposing Slovaks as he does for the black and gold.
In short, that means big minutes and big matchups for the towering defenseman. It also means delving into a mixed realm of possibilities in each zone of a bigger ice sheet.
Granted, Chara is not a stranger to international ice, even in his professional career (per Elite Prospects). He has seen action in the Italy-hosted 2006 Olympics as well as the 2012 World Championships and 25 KHL games last season.
That notwithstanding, the caliber of competition in this tournament will make navigating Sochi’s surface a different voyage. His first test of American attackers will pack plenty of kinetic and crafty specimens, such as Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, T.J. Oshie, Max Pacioretty and Zach Parise.
As Team USA’s lines take shape, multiple reports, including these from NHL.com's Corey Masiak and Canada.com's Sean Fitz-Gerald, indicate that the top troika will have San Jose’s Joe Pavelski centering Kessel and James van Riemsdyk.
Both wingers are Toronto Maple Leafs, longtime NHL divisional rivals whom Chara also engaged in a seven-game series in last year’s playoffs. That alone suggests that Slovakia will seek to forge that matchup throughout Thursday’s engagement.
Regardless of whom he faces and for how many shifts, Chara will need to devise a shutdown strategy out of his ordinary playbook. While he might get the upper hand on the likes of Kessel in the corners of a NHL pond, expanded dimensions lessen that edge.
If the Americans are going to use the extra ice to make more out of their turbine blades and avoid board meetings, Chara will need to flaunt other assets. He should not necessarily bank on matching his opponent’s quickness to hound a given puck-carrier to the wall or even set himself up for an effective open-ice check.
However, with his peerless reach, the 6’9” stalwart can still disrupt the Americans’ puck-moving plans. Provided he stays out of the range of hooking, tripping or slashing, he can force turnovers and clog passing lanes before the adversary’s speed becomes a factor on a given shift.
Getting creative to get around the enlarged rink may amount to grunt work in Chara’s day job, but it can be a different story at the other end. Inflicting his brawn on the biscuit and utilizing that aforementioned wingspan during any offensive onslaught should make him and the ice an ally for his fellow Slovak strikers.
Sure, he can test the fortitude of the U.S. skaters at any time while patrolling the point. He can pepper presumptive opposing starter Jonathan Quick (per Kevin Allen of USA Today) as he usually does any NHL goaltender.
But with more room in the depths of the zone, a player of Chara’s strength can also spawn some interesting scrambles from a distance. He can thrust the puck off the end boards with more force through either a genuine shot or a dump-in.
Nothing the Slovak captain does along the brim of the zone, however, generates as much intrigue as what he himself may do closer to the cage. There is no guarantee he will see action on the opposing doorstep during any power plays, but that has certainly worked for the Bruins this season.
Should the Slovak coaching staff employ that strategy on Thursday, the Americans will have plenty of personnel to pique a viewer’s interest. Having Chara screen Quick during a special teams’ segment should mean one or more of Team USA’s stronger and/or grittier skaters monitoring him at all times.
Among the forwards on the U.S. roster, centers Ryan Kesler and David Backes have logged the most shorthanded ice time in the NHL this season. Kesler, a one-time Selke Trophy winner, is averaging 126 seconds on the penalty kill per night. Backes, who at 221 pounds is the bulkiest American Olympic forward, averages one minute and 56 seconds.
Odds are those two will be heavily leaned on as defensive pivots, and they may need to lean their attention in Chara’s direction if the Slovak captain assumes a perch on the porch for the power play. If not them, somebody else will assume that towering task.
With that magnetic pull, the big blueliner can accentuate the bigger ice all the more for the benefit of his teammates. Commanding the attention of at least one key U.S. penalty killer in the dirty-nose area would instantaneously grant the other four Slovak skaters more inlets and options for puck movement with fewer inhibitions.
More puck possession of any kind in any situation will be crucial for Slovakia in setting a tone for the tournament with its captain at the forefront. The more Chara can use the environment to wear down his opponents instead of vice versa, the more positively he can influence the game.
Positively, that is, from a Slovak standpoint. New England puckheads who are shelving their Spoked-B lenses for the Olympics are bound to feel different. In that case, they will spend Thursday’s action rooting for Chara to play the part of the hapless hunter, not the stingy stalwart or productive world-class behemoth.
Either way, no Bruins buffs should plead boredom in watching the captain of America’s oldest NHL franchise lead his international squad against America’s Olympic pucksters.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com