When things go south for a team that’s expected to be a Stanley Cup contender, three people receive most of the heat: the head coach, the goalie and the captain.

Zdeno Chara bore his brunt of criticism when the Bruins were floundering in the middle of the winter and in mid-March. So he should be rewarded with a lot of credit for his Norris Trophy-worthy play down the stretch run into the playoffs and then the first-round upset of Buffalo. Of course, then he’s as much to blame for the Bruins’ historic collapse as anyone.

Chara registered just a couple assists in the Bruins’ season-ending four-game losing streak. At a time when they needed their most important player to do something extraordinary, he came up short despite his best efforts. Trying to figure out how much Chara did behind the scenes as a leader to try to get his team motivated to close out Philadelphia would be a fool’s errand. All we know is that on the ice, he wasn’t able to match his Flyers counterpart Mike Richards in the determination and aggression department when the Bruins needed to be led to the promised land.

Stats: 80 GP, 7-37-44, 87 PIM, plus-19

Season highlight: In a season that saw Chara’s goal total drop by 12 from 19 to seven, the defenseman’s best offensive moment might’ve been a goal that doesn’t count on his stat sheet. In one of the guttiest efforts of the season, the Bruins pulled out a 2-1 shootout win at San Jose without Marc Savard, Patrice Bergeron or David Krejci in their lineup. Chara’s slap shot from between the circles beat Evgeni Nabokov to the stick side and was the only score of the four-round shootout.

Season low-light: It took Chara until game No. 16 to score his first goal, and then he went 12 more games after that without lighting the lamp. His defensive game also seemed to suffer at the outset of the season, which hurt the Bruins’ chances at getting off to a better start.

Final grade: B-minus
Chara was a man possessed in the season’s final weeks with a playoff spot hanging in the balance. He was maybe the best player on the ice for six games against Buffalo, and he dominated Richards and the Flyers for the better part of the first three games in the second round. The Flyers comeback, however, was triggered by Richard turning around that matchup. You have to combine Chara’s late-season struggles with his early-season problems and his inability to be more of a power-play threat all year to formulate this grade.

The crystal ball says … Chara returns for the final year of his Boston contract ready to erase this season’s debacle and his outstanding play all over the ice forces the Bruins to proactively sign him to an extension and make some hard decisions on over players for after 2011.