Human eyesight can fall prey to all manner of optical illusions, but in this case the object really is as huge as it appears.
Racing into a corner with Boston Bruins’ defenceman Zdeno Chara, the tallest man in the NHL, is not for the easily ruffled, regularly doing so when you’re five-foot-seven (officially, anyway) requires nerve, savvy and a dose of reckless disregard.
“Ah, it’s second nature, I’ve been doing it for a long time,” said the Montreal Canadiens’ Brian Gionta. “There’s no denying how strong he is, and how big, you just have to use your assets.”
To do battle with Chara, seven feet tall on his skates, is to match wits with a guy with beast-of-burden strength who has a freakishly long reach; he is to be approached using speed, and quickness.
“The problem is when he gets hold of you, he can overpower you. It’s a delicate balance, how you play against him, where you find your seams,” Gionta said.
While Chara undoubtedly has that long stick, and isn’t shy about using it to shove, lean on, and otherwise abuse adversaries, he is about as nimble as you’d expect that large a man to be.
So players like Gionta, Brendan Gallagher, David Desharnais, and Daniel Brière – all members of the Habs’ 5-foot-10, 180 pounds and under brigade – typically like to play in close proximity to the big man, inside his reach.
It would be churlish to describe it as the worm’s eye view (is it nicer to call it the Chihuahua’s?), the sense from the Habs’ smaller forwards is that while Chara is not an easy guy to face, they don’t hate the challenge.
“You get a pretty good idea [of his size] from watching … but everyone has strengths and weaknesses and you just try and play to your strengths,” Gallagher said. “Regardless of who the defenceman is, I’m going to be the smallest guy going into the battle. It’s something I’ve dealt with my whole life, you understand how.”
In the 5-foot-9 Gallagher’s case, the how involves quick pivots, tenacity and a facing-the-boards game that is surprisingly strong for a smaller player. Chara, who generally plays half the game, is the Bruins’ defensive linchpin.
However, Chara is not the only player who poses a defensive obstacle to the Habs. Skating through the stingiest defensive team in the Eastern Conference only gets you as far as goalie Tuukka Rask, a Vezina trophy finalist.
But to suggest, as conventional wisdom holds, that this is a battle of a big, brawny team and a small, fleet one ignores the facts.
On average, the Bruins are taller than the Habs, it’s true, but only by 1.4 inches(Boston’s average is surely skewed by Chara and six-foot-five Dougie Hamilton); they’re also heavier, by one whole pound.
With players like Max Pacioretty, Rene Bourque, Lars Eller and noted Bruins-killer Thomas Vanek (30 goals, 62 points in 55 career games against Boston) in their top nine forwards – and a speedy fourth line that exceeds the Bruins’ skill-wise – Montreal isn’t as easy to push around as many might think.
The stereotype of Boston as a massive, slow-moving squad is also unfair – Habs coach Michel Therrien said “they don’t just rely on size, they’ve got speed too.”
While Boston will be favoured by the odds-makers, the two teams have posted nearly identical records since March 15 (Montreal has actually won one more game over that stretch).
Both squads are deep, if there’s an obvious point of differentiation, it may be that the Habs, by their mere presence, drive the Bruins’ blood pressure upward.
Forward Brad Marchand described Montreal this week as “one of those teams you just want to hit.”
Boston coach Claude Julien used the word “hate” in the same sentence as the Canadiens on Tuesday – although in fairness, he said he also used to hate the Bruins when he was paid to coach the Habs – and it’s an emotion that seems to be more keenly felt in the north end of Beantown than it is in Montreal (even if Therrien said “no comment” when asked about the hatred level he has for his rivals).
When it was suggested to Habs goalie Carey Price the Bruins have a white-hot loathing of their opponents, he deadpanned “that’s not very nice.”
“I’m sure they’re going to be a focused group. That team is filled with veterans and they know how to win in the playoffs,” said Price, who is on friendly terms with Rask, his fellow 2005 first-rounder. “We can’t fall into any kind of, I don’t know how to put it, circustry? You can coin that one.”
But if the Habs’ singular ability lies in coaxing the Bruins’ players to drive to the outskirts of Sanityville, that’s fine too.
“Whatever it takes, I suppose. We have a bunch of guys in this locker room that are very tenacious and tough to play against. That tends to drive other teams crazy, and there’s no sense in changing what we do well,” Price said.
There is, of course, a great deal of history between these two teams in the playoffs, and perhaps it’s true the Habs have some mysterious mojo advantage, having won 24 of the 33 postseason meetings between the teams.
The Bruins have won the last two, and will be looking for cosmic redress; Montreal and Boston always seem fated to collide in the big moments.
It’s as it should be, really.