Has there ever been a more frustrating follow-up season for a Norris Trophy winner than Zdeno Chara‘s 2009-10 season?
Rolling through 2008-09 on an unforgiving trail where he posted a career-high 19 goals and a +23 along with 28 points on the power-play, Chara led the Bruins to the Eastern Conference’s best record by example with every shift.
Proving himself among the NHL’s elite class of defensemen that mainly consists of Norris winners Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Pronger, Chara seemed to officially establish himself as the leading force of the upswing Boston Bruins even to his fiercest doubters as the B’s headed towards the 2009-10 season.
Beginning the season with a new top-pairing partner with Aaron Ward’s departure to Carolina in favor of the more expensive yet offensively-capable Derek Morris, Chara didn’t begin the season with the same flair as the season prior and despite amassing 14 penalty-minutes in the Bruins’ 7-3 walloping of the Carolina Hurricanes in the second game of the season, the physical presence of the mammoth wearing #33 seemed to be ‘off’.
Failing to register a goal until the 16th game of the season with a power-play tally against Jhonas Enroth of the Buffalo Sabres, Chara took an unprecedented 37 shots on goal in 15 games before finally putting one by the undersized Enroth.
Totaling 24 points through 39 games by the end of December, the points were certainly there at an alarming rate but the physicality and tenacity Bruins fans were accustomed to witnessing on a nightly basis was lacking noticeably as January would prove to be Chara’s worst as a Bruin in a long time.
Regardless of blasting a bullet past Sharks netminder Evgeni Nabokov in the Bruins’ improbable shootout victory in San Jose, Chara had a goal and four assists in 14 January games but struggled in his own end as he finished with a -4 for the month. With struggles mounting as the Bruins would lose a season-high ten straight contests, the assumed injury concerns about Chara were revealed when the Bruins captain confirmed that he was and had been playing with a dislocated pinkie finger on his left hand since November.
Refusing to make excuses for his lackluster play, Chara would go on a good run after revealing word of his injury with four points in the final five games before the Olympic break. Participating in the 2010 Olympic games in Vancouver as Team Slovakia’s captain, Chara semeed to be learning how to play around the injury significantly well with his three assists in seven Olympic contests in route to the elder Slovaks finishing fourth in the tournament.
However, returning from the Olympic break and one loss to the Canadiens later, Chara had a new top-pairing partner with Dennis Seidenberg‘s arrival in Boston for Byron Bitz, Craig Weller and a 2010 second rounder. Bolstering the quality of Chara’s play from the onset of his arrival, Chara would have a minus rating in just three out of his 15 games with Seidenberg in the line-up while contributing two goals and four assists over that span. While Seidenberg’s time with the Bruins in 2009-10 was short-lived after a lacerated tendon in his arm put him on the injured-reserve for the rest of the season, Chara’s confidence seemed to be rejuvenated as the 6’9″ defensemen finished the season as the club leader in assists with 37 helpers and plus/minus with a +19, due largely to his post-Olympic +13.
As the Bruins locked down the sixth seed in the final days of the regular season, ‘redemption’ seemed to be a fitting word to describe Zdeno Chara’s anticipation to get back into the playoffs. Performing exceedingly poor in the Bruins second-round series loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2009 Playoffs, Chara was unable to contain ‘Canes offensive-juggernaut Eric Staal on the way to finishing the series with just two points as the Bruins bowed out in seven. With eyes locked on Boston’s captain with the pressure to perform in the playoffs mounting, Chara stepped up from the second the puck dropped against Buffalo in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
Along with tallying an assist in Boston’s lone-goal in their Game 1 loss, Chara started what would be the first of many physical confrontations between the B’s and Sabres when he pasted Buffalo irritant Patrick Kaleta into the boards not once but twice behind Boston’s net.
Establishing his physical style of brute force while sporting a full-cage suffered from an Alex Semin high-stick during the regular season that broke his nose, Chara’s impact would come from the offensive standpoint in Game 2 with two goals including the game-winner in the Bruins’ 5-3 victory to knot the series up at a game a piece.
Turning out to be Chara’s only time trips to the score-sheet throughout the series, the biggest news around the Bruins’ top defensemen came with his snapping in Game 5 against Paul Gaustad in the waning seconds of Boston’s 4-1 loss to keep the Sabres alive. Dropping the gloves and exchanging shoves and punches with every Sabre on the ice (and probably Lindy Ruff if he inched any closer to the playing surface), Chara was slapped with an unjustified instigator penalty for reacting to Gaustad’s slash to his leg as he skated away.
As word of suspension began to grow per NHL rule 47.12 and 47.15 on fighting in the final five minutes of the game, the fears of any suspension were put to rest when word broke late that night that Chara would in fact be allowed to dress for Game 6, the eventual series-clincher for Chara’s Bruins.
Advancing to the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the second straight season, the captain in black was presented with a showdown of epic proportions (literally) with the Bruins matching up against 6’6″ defensemen Chris Pronger and the Philadelphia Flyers. Now without the cage on his face, Chara followed up his disastrous second-round debut in the spoked-B with a solid four points in seven games but was not able to contain the Flyers’ fast forwards as the Bruins collapsed and blew their three-games-to-none series lead.
Undoubtedly, the monumental collapse raised questions of Chara’s leadership in the dressing room and for good reason.
But more importantly, this was the second straight postseason where the defensemen wasn’t as good as the Bruins need him to be. With 13 points in 31 postseason games as a Bruin, has the issue been Chara’s inability to perform at his peak when the B’s ask for it or have nagging injuries been the case? Keep in mind Chara soldiered through shoulder problems in 2008, knee and groin issues in 2009, and a finger in 2010.
Highlights and Low-Lights of Season
- Chara’s strong play against the Northeast Division continued in 2009-10 with his 16 points and +19 in 23 games.
- Against teams that made the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, Chara had a goal and 17 assists in 33 games.
- With Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Marc Savard all out of the line-up with varying injuries, Chara stepped up for the Bruins and toppled the San Jose Sharks in the shootout with a slapshot fired by Nabkov in round four.
- Chara finished the regular season strongly with nine points and a +10. It shouldn’t be shocking to anyone that the B’s went 6-3-1 over that span.
- Firing off 242 shots on goal throughout the season, Chara had just seven goals, giving him a .029 shooting percentage on the season. Yikes.
- Chara finished with a minus rating in 23 contests in the regular season, his second highest amount of games with a minus in four years with Boston.
- In the month of March, Chara went seven straight contests without registering a point.
Entering the final year of a five-year contract that came with a 7.5 million dollar annual cap-hit, the Bruins and Chara have reportedly begun talks on an extension to keep ‘Big Z’ in town for presumably the rest of his career. Without question a driving force on the Bruins back-end, Chara will skip surgery on the dislocated finger and head into 2010-11 sporting a crooked finger.
While the pain from the injury seems to have subsided in #33, the likelihood of Chara regaining his Norris-form could be bolstered by partner Dennis Seidenberg and his steady presence provided, giving Z the chance to expand upon his game and create some more offense. Certainly an underrated offensive provider given his remarkable defensive abilities, Chara’s legendary slap-shot brought 19 goals home to the B’s in 2008-09 and should become the main focus of his game again in 2010-11 because frankly, the Garden Faithful have no patience for that 60 MPH wrist-shot anymore.
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About the Author: Ty Anderson ran the Chronicles From The Garden blogspot account during the 2008-09 NHL season before joining HockeyIndependent as the Bruins Blogger. He is a Seinfeld enthusiast, self-admitted Star Wars nerd, Vezina-quality street-hockey goaltender, and can be found in Balcony 314 of every Bruins home game. Follow him and his tweeting madness on Twitter at http://Twitter.com/_TyAnderson or send him an e-mail at TAndersonBruins@gmail.com.