Zdeno Chara has been plenty of things in his NHL career: The tallest guy to ever play the game. The captain who got the “C” before playing a single game with the Bruins. A target for jeers every time he touches the puck in another team’s building. The list goes on.
Yet one thing Chara has never been considered is a dirty player, and that’s something that changed for some with 15.8 seconds remaining in the second period of the Bruins’ 4-1 loss to the Canadiens (recap) in Montreal on Tuesday.
Chara hit Habs’ agitator Max Pacioretty into the partition that starts the glassed area between the benches, and Pacioretty went straight down. The Habs’ forward left the ice on a stretcher, while Chara left the ice via a five-minute interference major and a game misconduct.
“Obviously, that wasn't my intention to push him into the post. It's very unfortunate. In that situation, everything's happening fast, and you're not planning to do that,” Chara, whose only suspension in his career was for instigating a fight, told reporters after the game. “That's not my style to hurt somebody. I always play hard, play physical, but I never try to hurt anybody. I'm hoping he's OK.”
If this were a world without replays, Chara would be toast given the parties involved. Pacioretty, the same guy Chara has gotten tangled up with in each of the teams’ last two meetings, leaves the game in a stretcher at the hands of the Bruins’ captain? It doesn’t bode well.
But we don’t live in a world without replays, and even that can’t help his case in the public forum. We live in a world with Twitter, where a worldwide reaction to the hit was accessible immediately after Pacioretty fell to the ice. Some actually compared the Bruins’ captain to Todd Bertuzzi, a sign that perhaps some sort of aptitude test should be administered before one is allowed to actually use the site.
"I think what people have to understand is Zdeno is not a dirty player," Bruins coach Claude Julien said in his postgame interview with NESN's Naoko Funayama. "He certainly never meant for that to happen. I think if anything he tried to rub him out in the boards. Unfortunately it's the partition that did the damage.”
The fact that this is even debatable says plenty. Some think the play was clean, while some feel Chara should be suspended. It was absolutely interference on Chara’s part, and Julien probably has a point in blaming he partition more than the player. Did Chara follow through because he was finishing his check, or was it because he was dealing with the same kid who shoved him on Jan. 8 and jumped his defensive partner on Feb. 9? Trying to prove Chara guilty of intending to injure a player is a tough task. Basic logic says that given his size, Chara could have hurt a lot of people in his career if he wanted, and he hasn’t.
That of course, isn’t ultimately what’s up for debate. The matter in question is whether the hit was dirty, or suspendable. You can only base it on what was visible to the naked eye, and that was two players going for the puck along the boards. After both players swiped at it, Pacioretty took three strides, maybe four, before Chara gave him a little extra. It wasn’t the initial contact that forced Pacioretty to leave in a stretcher. It was that little extra — which justified the interference call regardless of where on the ice it happened — that forced Pacioretty into the partition and might force Chara to miss some time.
After re-watching the hit multiple times, anyone clamoring for a suspension might have a point, albeit a small one. There’s no way the B’s captain wanted to see it ultimately unfold the way it did, but the play was glaringly avoidable. Pacioretty thought the play was done and was continuing down the ice, but Chara forced an undesirable detour — malicious or not — and might have to wear an unfamiliar label as a result.
TUUKKA TIME IN QUESTION
There was going to be debate Tuesday no matter what. Exactly 39 minutes and 44 and two-tenths seconds of hockey prior to Chara’s hit on Pacioretty, fans were already provided with a topic. Should Tuukka Rask have gotten the nod?
This has hardly been a space that has applauded Claude Julien’s handling of the goalies (Jan. 1 remains a blunder that could have really rocked Rask’s confidence), but the line of thinking here was that Julien was overdue for giving Rask a start in this kind of game. The 23-year-old hadn’t gotten a start against a legitimate opponent since getting chased after two ugly periods against the Red Wings on Feb. 11. Rask may have gotten four of the starts on the team’s recent six-game road-trip, but look at the opponents: Islanders, Senators, Oilers, Senators. Not the best the league has to offer.
It was for this reason that there was plenty of reason to question Julien on Saturday. The Penguins seemed a good opponent for Rask to face. The stakes weren’t as high as a game against the Habs given that there’s no four-point swing, but the opponent was among the top teams in the East. Instead, it was Thomas on Saturday and Rask Tuesday.
The results weren’t ideal. It was clear early on that Rask wasn’t at his sharpest, as he gave up rebound after rebound in the first period, and gave up four goals on just 26 shots for a .846 save percentage.
While it was an ugly game for Rask and the Bruins, the decision by Julien to go with the youngster shows the faith that wasn’t shown on Jan. 1 against the Sabres, when he yanked Rask following the first period of his start in eight games. Playing Rask at the Bell Centre with the stakes as high as they were Tuesday (there were some Internet rumblings of a potential Tim Thomas injury, though Rask told reporters after the game that the start was scheduled), says to both Rask and his team that Rask’s starts for the rest of the season won’t just be to spell Tim Thomas. This is a team that should be able to win in front of both of their netminders, and as the team tries to get Thomas in his October form (and not his February form) for the playoffs, they might have to rely on their backup for big points.
TIME FOR B’S TO TAKE ADVANTAGE
Suddenly, that lead in then Northeast Division is down to three points. Suddenly, it’s the Canadiens, and not the B’s, who are red-hot. The Habs have won their last five games, while the B’s have gone two games without a win, though they picked up a point in Saturday’s overtime loss to the Penguins.
The B’s had a shot at both opening up a seven-point lead in the race for the division title and keeping pace with the Flyers, who were scheduled to earn a close-to-automatic two points against the Oilers Tuesday night (they did). Unfortunately for the Bruins, both the Habs and Flyers, the two teams Bruins fans will likely take to now that scoreboard-watching seasons is upon us, gained two points. The Habs got closer, while the Flyers got farther away. Two teams moved in directions Tuesday night that the B’s hoped they wouldn’t.
But we’re dealing with sports, and sports aren’t sports without sports clichés, so here’s one: The Bruins need to worry about themselves and what’s in their control.
What’s in their control right now is a semi-light six-game stretch before their next meeting with the Habs. The B’s will host the Canadiens for the final game of the season series on March 24, but first, they’ll have a pretty light group of opponents to push through.
Of their next six opponents, the Sabres, whom the B’s will host Thursday at the Garden, are the only team currently in line for a playoff spot (No. 8 in the Eastern Conference). From there, they’ll take on the Islanders, Blue Jackets, Predators and Maple Leafs on the road before playing the Devils in Boston. While the Leafs have points in 10 of their last 11 games and the Devils have been red-hot, each of the six teams the B’s are set to face prior their rematch with Habs should be viewed as beatable.
Each point is crucial this time of year, so the B’s will have to execute against the lesser opponents while the opportunity is there.