Chara needs to come up big
WILMINGTON - The good news for the Bruins: Zdeno Chara is healthy. The not-so-good news: Chara is healthy.
Last season, Chara was coming off offseason shoulder surgery. Chara started slowly, but his game kicked in around November, at the time the Bruins began a two-month roll. Chara had no parallels to his unique blend of shutdown defense and offensive firepower.
This season, the NHL’s premier defenseman in 2008-09, despite being injury-free, has not even been his team’s best blue liner (for now, Derek Morris holds that distinction).
“Good,’’ coach Claude Julien termed his captain’s game. “But can be better. He knows that. He’s been good. There are some games where we’ve seen him be dominant like we have in the past. But so far, he hasn’t been dominant night in and night out like he has been. He’s frustrated a little bit, too.’’
Last season, Julien deployed Chara and Aaron Ward against the league’s best offensive threats. Chara was mean. He bumped players off the puck. He combined his wingspan with his 65-inch Easton to create a windshield-wiper effect, rubbing out scoring chances before they even developed. Chara scored a career-high 19 goals, including 11 on the power play, where he was a threat on the point and down low at the far post. Chara averaged 26:04 of ice time per game, sixth most in the NHL.
But Chara and the Bruins have been puzzled over where that game has gone. In 11 games, he has zero goals and six assists while playing 24:34 per outing. Chara’s boomers from the point have often hit bodies, sailed wide, or found their way into goalies’ gloves.
The cracks in his defensive game, however, have been even more surprising. On Thursday, while matched against New Jersey’s top line of Zach Parise, Dainius Zubrus, and Jamie Langenbrunner, Chara was on the ice for the winning goal. First, Chara lost a puck battle to Parise behind the Boston net. Then, Parise gained position on Chara in front and tipped a Langenbrunner shot. Tim Thomas stopped the puck, but Zubrus crashed the net and scored on the rebound.
“He has to be better,’’ said general manager Peter Chiarelli of Chara. “When he plays a simple game, he’s the best defenseman in the National Hockey League.’’
Chara was slowed by a groin injury in training camp, but has been healthy throughout the regular season. While there are possible factors to his misfiring performance - he’s had a history of slow starts, is adjusting to a new partner in Morris, is coming off the highs of a Norris Trophy-winning season, is trying to balance hockey and parenthood - the Bruins are expecting Chara to return to his dominant presence.
“His whole game, at times, has been up and down a little bit,’’ Julien said. “He’s never been terrible. But there are some nights where I’d say he’s been OK. When you talk about Z, for our team to have success, we’d like to see him the way he was last year - being a stellar defenseman, being stingy, and being a defenseman that every team hated playing against.’’
Before last night’s games, the former University of Maine star was the No. 3 scorer in the NHL, with nine goals and 10 assists for the Oilers, who visit TD Garden this afternoon. This is the same Penner who had only 17 goals and 20 assists in 78 games last season while being roasted by ex-coach Craig MacTavish for being out of shape and not committed.
Shawn Thornton, once Penner’s linemate in Anaheim, isn’t surprised by his ex-teammate’s early success.
“When we were in Anaheim, it was me, him, and [Todd ] Marchant,’’ Thornton said. “We were only as good as he was. He could absolutely dominate a game and make our line look unbelievable. Or the opposite and we’d get yelled at.’’
The 6-foot-4-inch, 245-pound Penner, who played at Maine in 2003-04 before signing with Anaheim, has been reborn under new coach Pat Quinn. Penner has skated with Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky on Edmonton’s No. 1 line, establishing himself as one of the league’s elite power forwards.
“He’s a huge body with great hands that can skate and shoot,’’ Thornton said. “When he gets the puck down low, he makes things happen with it. It’s hard to get the puck off him because he’s so big and strong. So, yeah, I thought he could be this good.’’