No Zee? 'D' Embraced Challenge
BostonBruins.com - The Bruins knew they would be without Zdeno Chara for two games.
The Captain was traveling to Sochi, Russia to carry his native Slovakia's flag in the Olympic Opening Ceremony on February 7.
They knew his absence would be felt, as any player's is, but they also knew that they would be able to get the job done.
"Obviously I would never have made this decision without talking to the team – management, coaches and obviously players," Chara had reiterated after the Bruins' 3-1 win over Vancouver on February 4, his last game before departing for Sochi.
"It would be pretty selfish if I were to make that decision on my own. This was made as a group and that was the only way I would accept it. So I really appreciate it again and it means a lot to me. Again, thank you to all who made that decision."
Since the honor was first announced back on January 16, it was a non-issue with the team, and for Head Coach Claude Julien.
"When you look at what Zee has done for this club, I think it's an easy decision to make, because you're carrying your country's flag at the Olympics," Julien had said that day in Dallas.
"And even if he misses a game and maybe two, I think that's the least we can do for a guy who's given us so much since he's been here."
While there's no replicating the 6-foot-9, 255-pound defenseman and the presence about him when he's around the team, it has also presented an opportunity - while only for a brief time - for a young D corps that has already been asked to step up this season, to step up yet again.
"It’s kind of that next man up mentality," said blueliner Kevan Miller.
"In the past, if one guy goes down or somebody gets hurt or somebody’s not there, you're the next one up, kind of that mentality, there to fill the void, and we just have to keep doing what we’re doing."
The first "test" was against the Blues in St. Louis on Thursday night. The Bruins passed. Despite not getting the desired result, they fought back from a two-goal deficit to tie it at 2-2 in the third period, and nearly win in overtime.
"We really played well and I thought we had as good of an opportunity to win that game as any," said Julien, who was impressed with his young D corps, whose less experienced member - David Warsofsky - was playing in just his fifth NHL game.
"There was a tremendous amount of effort and focus, and from the back end, we're missing a lot of key elements there, and still it didn't seem to matter."
The focused carried over, with the Bruins putting forth a dominant effort in their 7-2 win over Ottawa on Saturday to close out an 8-1-2 record in the final 11 games before the Olympic Break.
Once again, it didn't seem matter, even though the dynamic considerably changes without 'Big Zee' in the lineup.
While Chara's absence was short, the Bruins have also been without Adam McQuaid (leg injury) and Dennis Seidenberg (out for the season after surgery to repair torn ACL/MCL).
McQuaid's 6-foot-5, 209-pound physicality adds considerable size to the Bruins' back end, while also adding considerable experience, with 209 regular season games under his belt. The 32-year-old Seidenberg brought 615 games of experience, and a 6-foot-1, 201-pound build that he uses to tirelessly outbattle his opposition.
But where the Bruins lose toughness without those players, they pick up mobility.
"Any team that has success in this league has guys that are hard to go through and we’ve got that but we also have a good mixture," said Julien. "At one point, I thought we had a lot of size but not enough mobility and I think as an organization we’ve made those adjustments and it’s paid off for us."
"But we don’t lose sight of what our team is all about and we try and build it with that in mind."
"We all have faith in them," said Milan Lucic, of the young defense. "We’ve relied on them a lot the last month, and especially on this last stretch they’ve come up big for us."
"And you see guys like Dougie and Bart and Millsy playing big minutes and Kruger still having the success he’s had so far this year, so nothing changes with these last few games."
From an experience standpoint, heading into the game against Ottawa on February 8, there were a combined 230 career NHL games among Dougie Hamilton (82), Matt Bartkowski (61), Torey Krug (59), Kevan Miller (23) and David Warsofsky (5), with 30-year-old Johnny Boychuk (298) the veteran of the back end in Chara's absence.
Chara has played 1,109 regular season games.
"Obviously Zee is a huge part of our team on defense, so it’s going be a lot tougher for us," acknowledged Hamilton, who sits right alongside the Captain at the team's practice rink.
"I was trying to think before practice of how many career games we have and I think Johnny has more than the rest of the five of us."
He was correct in his assessment - 68 more, to be exact.
"I think he's shown he's a good dad so far so he'll take care of us," Hamilton joked of Boychuk, who recently became a father, in addition to assuming a role as the "Dad" of the blueline.
With Chara gone for the couple of games, Boychuk assumed the lead by default - but to Hamilton, his leadership is nothing new.
"That's how he's always been," said Hamilton. "He's a leader and I think, for me last year, I really looked up to him and want to be like him, so I think he doesn't really have to change. I think he's already a leader."
Boychuk had plenty of confidence in Hamilton and the "youngblood" defense.
"They've been playing extremely well and they have to continue it," said the blueliner, who hadn't even realized he was the vet, until a reporter brought it up.
"These guys that we have back here, they don’t play like rookies, that’s for sure."