By Andy Merritt
BOSTON – The cliché in hockey is that a team has to have an “identity.” When a team is struggling for unquantifiable reasons, it’s “still trying to figure out our identity.”
The Boston Bruins have an identity. They’re a hard-nosed bunch, full of gritty types who are just as happy – perhaps more happy, in fact – to get in a scrap as they are to make a fancy play. That goes for just about every player, from fourth-line winger Shawn Thornton right up to the captain, Zdeno Chara.
One of the players mentioned in the paragraph above has the unofficial job of enforcer. The other one is probably the most important skater on the Bruins roster. One plays less than seven minutes a night. The other is on the ice for nearly half of the game.
A captain is expected to do a lot of things, including standing up for his teammates. There have been times over his Bruins career when Chara has been the one to step in and rumble with opposing players who have taken too many liberties with Boston’s stars. Most of the time, Chara is able to quickly and effectively send a message, and we all move on with our lives.
Sunday night, in an emotionally heated game against ancient rival Montreal, Chara’s nasty side got the better of him – and the Bruins. With four and a half minutes left in the second period, Tyler Seguin sent a puck over to linemate Patrice Bergeron for a foray into the offensive zone. Alexei Emelin tried to get to Seguin before the pass, but was late arriving. The Bruins’ young phenom started to peel away from a frustrated Emelin, who could only extend his arms and try to cross-check Seguin.
The play happens a lot, and while it’s easy (and not entirely wrong) to paint the Canadiens as cheap shot artists, if Seguin hadn’t lifted his arms in the natural motion of delivering the puck, we might not be talking about what happened next.
In fact, we might not be talking about a Montreal victory.
Emelin put a sharp, if not entirely vicious, cross check on Seguin, catching him under the left arm. The Bruins’ winger went down in a heap. Emelin’s stick snapped in half. And Chara saw red. Not even in the frame of the NBC broadcast’s camera when Emelin hit Seguin, Chara skated from behind the Boston blue line all the way into the Montreal zone – past Seguin and three upright teammates, including traditional pest Brad Marchand. He hunted down Emelin below the faceoff dot to goaltender Peter Budaj’s right, and the 6-foot-9 behemoth put a stiff check on the comparatively smaller 6-foot-2 Canadien defenseman.
Let’s back up for one second, to Jan. 21. With the Winnipeg Jets in town, former Bruin Blake Wheeler came in a little late on rookie defenseman Dougie Hamilton, catching him knee-to-knee as Hamilton looked to avoid the check deep in the Boston zone. Chara expressed his displeasure with Wheeler immediately afterward, skating up alongside and delivering a few ostensibly terse words. Later, a loose puck fluttered out to the red line, and Chara, who waited for the right opportunity, put a punishing hit on Wheeler, knocking the beefy Winnipeg forward to the ice with a clean check.
The message was delivered effectively, with no penalty called. The Bruins went on to win 2-1 in a shootout.
Sunday night, Chara didn’t have that kind of patience. He went immediately after Emelin, and even after putting a hit on the defenseman, he wasn’t done. Chara waited for Emelin to get up, and dropped the gloves. The two blueliners got into a ferocious fight, with Chara giving more than he got. The TD Garden crowd went wild. The Bruins got their revenge. Chara got 17 minutes in penalties for his efforts.
The scrap came at 15:35 of the second. Chara didn’t return to the ice until the 13 minute mark of the third. For just over 17 minutes, Boston played without its best defenseman. The Habs were licking their chops.
“He’s on the power play, [penalty kill], 5-on-5, and he’s a big part of their team,” said forward David Desharnais. “For him to not be there for … 17 minutes was huge for us and we took advantage of it.”
After Max Pacioretty tied the game 5:31 into the third, Desharnais scored the eventual game-winner just under four minutes later – all with Chara sitting helplessly in the penalty box.
“[Chara] is an important player, one of the best defenseman in the league,” Montreal coach Michel Therrien said. “We didn’t have a game plan because he was not there, we just tried to play our way. The Desharnais line was able to capitalize on his absence. We all know that Chara is always playing against top players and top lines, and we scored two goals in his absence.”
Chara’s efforts were welcomed by his teammates.
“He did the right thing and it was great for him to do that, to stick up for [Seguin] like that,” Marchand said. “Anytime a guy does that you give him a pat on the back but we have to do our job to stick up for him and make sure that doesn’t happen, and unfortunately they did get a couple of goals, but by no means is that Z’s fault.”
“That’s the character of our team,” Seguin said. “Everybody always has each other’s backs, and he’s the first guy I went up to after I went back to the dressing room after the period.”
Coach Claude Julien echoed that refrain, turning his ire toward the Canadiens’ notorious efforts at drawing penalties.
“Right now the frustrating part is that you end up with 17 minutes in the penalty box when you should have been on the power play,” Julien said. “It’s as simple as that. And it’s frustrating because, you know, tonight as everybody saw there was a lot of embellishment. And this is embarrassing for our game – the embellishing – and right now they’ve got over 100 power plays so far and it’s pretty obvious why.
“And you know what? If we start calling those penalties for embellishment maybe teams will stop doing it. But until we take charge of that it’s going to be an issue.”
Regardless of the eagerness of Julien and Chara’s teammates to stick up for their captain, the Canadiens got under the Bruins’ skins Sunday night. It was obvious when Chara went crazy on Emelin. It was obvious when Adam McQuaid hammered Desharnais to the ice after helping Pacioretty’s game-tying goal into the net in the third – well after the play was over.
Hockey players try to play right on the edge of aggression. In games as tense and emotional as Sunday’s, it’s easy to go over that edge. But the captain took himself out of the game at a crucial time when he did it.
Chara averages almost 25 minutes of ice time per game. Sunday night, he skated for just 17:16. Perhaps the Canadiens would have come back either way – perhaps in Sunday night’s battle for first place, the Habs were destined to come away with a victory no matter who was on the ice.
But on Jan. 21, Chara taught Blake Wheeler a lesson about messing with his teammates. On Sunday night, the Bruins were the ones who got schooled.