CHICAGO – Marian Hossa couldn’t ask for a better neighbour than Zdeno Chara.
He just might be the biggest nightmare as an opponent—particularly with a championship on the line.
The 6-foot-9 Bruins defenceman has been causing all sorts of havoc for opponents and is a major reason why they’re aiming for their second championship in three years.
They’re set to take on Hossa and the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals on Wednesday, the first time Original Six franchises are meeting for the title since 1979.
It’ll also be friend against friend, neighbour against neighbour.
Hossa and Chara played junior hockey together, and they live in apartments across the street from each other in Slovakia.
“I’ll try to joke with him because he likes to be serious all the time on the ice,” Hossa said. “He doesn’t like to talk on the ice, so I just try to throw some funny stories (at him) and hopefully make him laugh.”
Anything to break the ice, particularly if it distracts an opponent.
Chara has been a big reason why the Bruins are back in the Cup finals.
“You have no idea what this guy does for a hockey club,” coach Claude Julien said. “The few times he’s been out of our lineup, you’ve seen a difference. That’s the impact that he has on our hockey club. Again, I think we’ve had an up-and-down second half of a short season.
“I’m sure that played a role in maybe looking at others for the Norris Trophy. But, again, I don’t think it’s changed our views on him. He’s been an MVP for us since the day he stepped into that dressing room, and continues to be.”
Chara was the focal point in a game plan that kept former MVPs Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin without a point while the Bruins swept high-scoring Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Blackhawks are so concerned about him, it looks as if they’re putting stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on different lines.
They were on separate lines in practice on Monday, with Toews working with Hossa and Patrick Sharp and Kane skating with Michal Handzus and Bryan Bickell. It could be gamesmanship or a signal that the Blackhawks are trying to keep one of their top scorers away from Chara.
Either way, it shows just how big an impact he’s had in the playoffs.
He helped shut down Malkin in the conference finals while the Bruins held the Penguins to just two goals.
Now, Boston is facing another skilled and deep team. No one dominated in the regular season like Chicago, which got off to a record start and captured the Presidents’ Trophy.
But no one’s been stingier than Boston in the playoffs. The Bruins have allowed just 30 goals in 16 games for a league-best 1.88 average in the playoffs. They finished third behind Chicago and Ottawa during the regular season, and they just swept a team that led the league in goals.
Now, they’ll try to shut down the Blackhawks.
“They’re very skilled, fast, have a lot of depth on their team,” Chara said.
In some ways, the Blackhawks remind him of Pittsburgh, and the Penguins didn’t fare too well against Boston.
“I think we’re looking forward to the challenge,” Chicago’s Brent Seabrook said. “I think our forwards are looking forward to the challenge. Boston did a great job against Pittsburgh taking away their offensive skill guys and what not. Our forwards are going to have to work. Our ‘D’ are going to have to work to get up and help our forwards. It’s going to have to be a complete team effort.”
Particularly with Chara on the other side.
It’s not just him, though. There’s Dennis Seidenberg and Andrew Ference, who returned from an injury for the conference finals.
As good as they’ve been at shutting down opponents, Bruins defenders are also contributing on the offensive end. They have 15 goals in the post-season.
Johnny Boychuk has five and Torey Krug four. And besides being a major factor on defence, Chara has nine assists.
“He’s the biggest guy on the ice,” Hossa said. “His stick is so big. If you don’t move your feet, he’s going to hurt you. He’s going to come close to you and pin you on the board. So you have to make sure you’re moving your feet. You can’t try to stop and start.”