It’s hard to believe that it was just two years ago that Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara was forbidden to fight by then-head coach Dave Lewis.
As the jumbo-sized defenseman proved tonight in the Bruins’ 4-2 win over Atlanta at the TD Banknorth Garden – a victor that completed a home-and-home sweep of the pitiful Thrashers – beyond his imposing presence down low, his rocket slap shot and his munching of minutes, Chara can also intimidate and pulverize opponents with the best of them.
The stage was set when Thrashers rookie Boris Valabik, trying to do anything to rouse his team, which was trailing 2-1 late in the second period, took some physical liberties with Bruins leading goal-scorer Phil Kessel – who’s upper lip was opened by the roughhousing.
Chara just couldn’t stand to see that happen, and when the whistle finally blew the 6-foot-9, 255-pound Beast of the East made the 6-7, 235-pound youngster pick on someone almost his own size. While the diminutive Kessel and his black-and-gold-wearing brethren watched, Chara used his fists to make sure Valabik knew that he wouldn’t get away with anything – not in the Garden, not anywhere.
Now remember, this is a kid in Valabik who grew up in Slovakia idolizing Chara. Before Friday night’s first half of the two-game set between Boston and Atlanta, Chara honored Valabik’s wish by granting the former first-round pick an audience to talk about hockey and making it in the big time when you’re big-time big.
None of that mattered. All Chara saw was Kessel getting bullied, and Kessel appreciated that the son of a Greco-Roman wrestler played the role of bodyguard – even if it meant 17 minutes in penalties.
“I just think it says a lot about him coming to my defense like that,” said Kessel, who tallied a goal and an assist in the win to run his league-high point-scoring streak to 15 games. “He’s a great captain, a great guy, and it shows what type of team guy he really is.”
It not only says a lot about Chara (who by the way, said – tongue in cheek – that he thought Kessel could thrown down with Valabik) to the other members of the Bruins. It sends a message to the league – that the chains are always off Chara and anyone trying to step outside the letter of the NHL law might have to go toe-to-toe with one of the scariest skaters in all the land. Sure, you might have to exchange blows with Shawn Thornton, Milan Lucic or even Shane Hnidy, depending on the situation and the infraction. But in the back of an opponents’ mind, the thought of Chara bearing down and throwing knuckles from on high has to be prominent – and it has to have an impact.
That’s why Chara, a Norris Trophy finalist last season, should always be among the top three defenseman in the league, and why he might be more valuable than any of the other top blueliners. Sure he’s capable of playing air-tight defense for 30-plus minutes a game if needed. He can quarterback a power play, he can cause the great snipers like Alexander Ovechkin to switch wings in an effort to get away, and he can let rip with a slap shot from the blue line or even score on a wraparound like he did Friday in Atlanta. And Nicklas Lidstrom in Detroit and Scott Niedermayer in Anaheim, they can probably do those things too. But where’s the intimidation factor? Where’s the bodyguard element? Where’s the ability to bring a team together by showing that, ‘hey, I’m not any more important than the rest of you and I’ll sacrifice 17 minutes of ice time to protect you’?
It’s all packed in that black and gold (well, mostly black at home these days) sweater numbered 33 with a C above the logo in front. And it’s an ingredient the Bruins have come to rely on and are going to need if this early-season success is going to turn into championship-caliber play come spring. It’s why the Bruins invested the better part of their salary cap in Chara and why keeping him under wraps is never a good idea.
The rest of the league knows that, the Bruins know that and any opposing player that doubts it will find out the hard way.