Kalman: Why it’s doubtful we’ll see Zdeno Chara matching up against second lines the rest of this season

Matt Kalman
January 07, 2019 - 8:44 am

There were a lot of positives to take away from the Bruins’ 2-1 win against Buffalo on Saturday, their fourth straight win.

Which one could pay the most dividends now that we’re in the second half of the season and the Bruins are in a tooth-and-nail battle for playoff position in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference wild card races? How about they got their No. 1 shutdown defenseman being back to his offense-extinguishing best against 2/3 of one of the most dangerous lines in the league.

The Sabres’ top line might’ve been missing Jack Eichel because of an upper-body injury, but wings Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart were still at full speed – that is until they ran into the defense pair of Zdeno Chara and Brandon Carlo, and Patrice Bergeron’s forward line.

Skinner and Reinhart went into the game with 41 and 40 points, respectively, and left with the same total on their ledger. Centered by Evan Rodrigues for the first two periods and then rookie Casey Mittelstadt in the third period, Skinner and Reinhart were reduced to perimeter attempts all night, when they could even get out of the neutral zone and into Boston’s territory.

“I think especially killing those rushes early and having good gaps and reading off each other and then trying to really, not to give them the speed and the time in the neutral zone on the breakouts that they like to have. That’s pretty common and a general rule, but these players, if you give them space and time they’re going to make something happen. So we try and I thought we did a really good job to swarm them and kill those rushes early on,” Chara told WEEI.com after the victory.

Skinner had six shots on net but just two from below the dots and only one of those was anywhere near the crease.

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It was Chara’s fifth game back after six weeks out with a left MCL injury, but in some ways it was his triumphant return, getting the toughest defensive assignment at home in a crucial divisional tilt. He'd been cast in his usual shutdown role for most of the games since his return, but two nights earlier against Calgary coach Bruce Cassidy and his staff kept Chara away from the Flames top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm. Instead Chara was assigned to the bulkier second line of Matthew Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik. After Matt Grzelcyk proved he wasn’t the appropriate foil for Gaudreau, the Bruins used almost every combination of defensemen possible against him and his linemates. Chara even had a couple of shifts in the second period against the top line but was back to hunting the second line for most of the game’s second half.

The joy of victory against the team that was leading the Western Conference made the frustration of not getting to face one of the league’s hottest lines more palatable for Chara. That didn’t mean he had an easy time accepting his second-tier assignment.

“It’s hard to watch, yeah,” Chara said. “I was preparing myself to play against the top line, and that’s my job and I take a lot of pride in that and I love playing against those guys. So that’s something that the decision was made and that’s the way it goes.

“Tonight again I got the matchup against the top line and we got probably better looks but it’s just that’s the way it goes. I have to respect what the coaching staff decides to do … but my job is to get ready, and I’m always getting ready to help the team and play well defensively and do my job, working hard and play against the line that I’m on the ice against.”

Chara sought and earned redemption against Buffalo’s top line. One wouldn’t expect to see him playing against anything but top lines from here on out. After averaging around 20 minutes per game in his first four back, he logged 21:32 against the Sabres, and half his 5-on-5 minutes were against Skinner and Reinhart.

The matchups are only going to get tougher and the standings points more important the final 39 games of the season. The rust is off Boston’s most dominant defensive figure and the stretch run should see plenty of a healthy Chara crushing the league’s higher-end offensive talents.

“It’s one of those things that … it’s not secret, you miss six weeks, you’re not going to get that timing right away. That’s something you can’t practice, it’s timing. You can’t really get it any other way than just playing the games," Chara said. "First few games has kind of been trying to find it and we were kind of, we won those games but we were sloppy and it’s hard to kind of come in the lineup and it’s like the team is not quite on top playing their game and you try to fill in. And coming in the last two, three games I feel much better and obviously very happy that it’s not one of those things that you keep struggling and struggling.

“I work really hard in the practices and off the ice too to make sure I keep my feet moving and I have the jump and I’m fresh. I love playing the game, like I’ve said many times, and I love being out there. The more I’m out there, I feel more comfortable and better and in the game. So yeah, I’m enjoying it.”

Related: Chris Wagner scored one for late grandfather in Bruins’ win

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