It’s as big a problem for the Toronto Maple Leafs as they’ve faced, both literally and in terms of their ability to come back in their first-round series.
What do you do about Zdeno Chara, the Boston Bruins’ 6-foot-9 captain who has owned the ice whenever he has stared down a team wearing blue and white?
In Game 1, the Leafs didn’t have anything resembling an answer, and Boston posted a 13-6 shot advantage at even strength with the big man tilting the playing surface in Toronto’s direction.
That’s part of a long-standing trend, with Chara’s performance against the Leafs the past two seasons in particular the definition of domination.
The most eye-opening number of them all: The Bruins have outscored Toronto 15-2 and outshot them 115-80 in their last 11 games with Chara on the ice at even strength.
That adds up to the Leafs producing just seven even-strength shots per game in Chara’s roughly 20 minutes of five-on-five ice time, roughly 30-per-cent below the league average.
Boston’s puck possession is also at an elite level when he is on the ice against any team (roughly 56 per cent), but is closer to an overwhelming 60 per cent against Toronto.
“With Zee, it’s about a strong defensive game, nothing fancy, big shots, a lot of straight lines,” Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said. “What he does, a lot of guys follow.”
With two days of practice to regroup in time for Saturday’s Game 2, Leafs coach Randy Carlyle and his staff did plenty of video and on-ice work focused on moving the puck quickly out of their own end and through the neutral zone.
The Leafs’ more difficult task, however, will be to sustain any pressure at all when Chara is patrolling the left side of the ice, something only a select few teams have been able to pull off.
“I don’t think we test him enough,” Leafs winger Clarke MacArthur admitted on Friday. “He’s a big guy and you’re not going to win the one-on-one battles maybe in the corners as much, but if you can make him turn and move a little bit, you’re going to find a little room out there.”
While Chara’s physicality often gets much of the attention due to his size, Toronto’s forwards also pointed to the difficulties his 65-inch stick presents.
(An exception allows him to play with a stick two inches longer than the NHL’s max due to his height.)
“It’s so long that you have to make sure you get the right angles when you dump pucks in,” explained Ryan Hamilton, one of Toronto’s depth forwards who will likely rejoin the lineup on Saturday. “You have to always be aware of him when he’s on the ice.”
Then there is Phil Kessel’s role in the discussion.
No breakdown of Chara’s effectiveness against the Leafs is complete without referencing the job he does every night against their top scorer, something that was again unmistakable in Wednesday’s 4-1 loss.
With Bruins coach Claude Julien getting last change, Chara was on the ice for more than 85 per cent of Kessel’s ice time, and limited the normally shot-happy sniper to just one shot late in the third period.
According to hockeyanalysis.com, since Kessel joined the Leafs in the fall of 2009, Chara has faced him more than any other player in the league (202 minutes at even strength).
Those minutes have been dramatically one-sided, too, with the Bruins outscoring the Leafs an average of 3.86 to 0.59 per 60 minutes of play and generating 62 per cent of the shot attempts.
That’s not to say Toronto can’t begin to limit the trend, especially given two recent developments on the Chara front.
For one, with teammate Andrew Ference suspended for Game 2 as the result of an elbow to Leafs centre Mikhail Grabovski, Chara likely won’t be playing with Dennis Seidenberg as Julien shuffles his pairings to accommodate a new body.
Additionally, there has been a lot of talk in Boston that the recently turned 36-year-old defenceman is beginning to slow down, something that was a major topic of local media discussion during the team’s less than stellar finish to the season.
While the Bruins deny there’s been a fall off, Chara’s slipups during that 2-5-2 skid could provide Carlyle and Co. with a few more tweaks to pursue.
“He is at an age when normally performances start to decline,” Chiarelli said of Chara, who is signed for $6.9-million a season for another five years. “And that’s not a knock, that’s just simple physics. But he’s not simply put together, he’s a big strong man who is in terrific shape.
“At some point, it will happen. I don’t think it’s happening now… but certainly at some point it will and we’ll deal with it when it does.”
Over the last two seasons, Zdeno Chara has been the single biggest reason the Leafs have struggled against the Bruins. When he is on the ice, Boston has outshot, outchanced and outscored Toronto heavily at even strength.
Attempts + blocked