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Chara finally feeling comfortable

Wednesday, 01.16.2008 / 9:23 AM / NHL on NBC Spotlight

By Brian Compton - Deputy Managing Editor

But after spending four seasons with the top-flight Ottawa Senators, adjusting to life in Boston took more than maybe even Chara expected. Three months after signing his mega-contract, the 6-foot-9 defenseman was tabbed as the Bruins’ new captain. It was a lot to take on all at once for Chara, who was coming off a career season in Canada’s capital city (16 goals, 27 assists, plus-17).

Chara appeared in 80 games for his new club last season, scoring 11 goals and adding 32 assists. But the number that stood just as much as he does on the ice was his minus-21 rating. The Bruins went 35-41-6 and finished in last place in the Northeast Division.

When the Boston Bruins shelled out $37.5 million to Zdeno Chara on the first day of free agency in 2006, it certainly was reasonable for them to expect the enormous defenseman would pay immediate dividends.

Despite his struggles, Boston General Manager Peter Chiarelli, who replaced coach Dave Lewis with Claude Julien prior to the start of this season, said there never was an ounce of doubt that, given the size of the investment, they had made right choice in inking Chara to a long-term contract.

“Absolutely not,” Chiarelli said adamantly. “He’s got tremendous character. If he wasn’t able to do things I’d be concerned, but he was overdoing things. There was never any doubt.”

And with good reason. This time around, Chara is his old self as he and the Bruins meet the New York Rangers Sunday afternoon (12:30 p.m. ET) on the NHL on NBC. Less than 50 games into the season, the All-Star defenseman has six goals, 23 assists and a plus-4 rating. His play has helped the Bruins remain in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. All it took was some time to adjust.

“I’m playing more my game,” Chara told “Last year was obviously a first year with a new team, and it takes a while to get used to everything around you. This year, you’re coming to a team that you’ve been on for one season, so it’s a little bit easier. We changed our coaching staff, as well. It’s been a fresh start for us from the beginning.”

With all of the changes out of the way, Chara has had the opportunity to feel more comfortable in the captain’s role. But while the 260-pound blueliner is the one wearing the “C,” Chara believes there are plenty of leaders within the Bruins’ dressing room.

“It’s a big honor,” he said. “I’m privileged to be a leader on the team. It doesn’t mean that I’m the only leader. We have more than enough guys to lead this team. It’s not just the responsibility of one guy. We have Glen Murray, Marc Savard, Aaron Ward, Andrew Ference, P.J. Axelsson … we have more guys who are pulling the leadership. It’s a good group.”

A group Chiarelli has helped construct. The Bruins’ general manager also believes taking on the captaincy could have been another reason for Chara’s struggles in 2006-07. Chiarelli also noted there are some players who remain in the adjustment process after signing big free-agent deals last summer.

“He’s getting a lot of support from the guys,” said Chiarelli, who arrived in Boston in 2006 after spending the previous two seasons in Ottawa as assistant GM. “You see this a lot when players change teams -- it takes a little bit of time to get accustomed to the city, to the surroundings, to the coaches. You can even look at some of the big free agents from this past summer, it’s taken them some time this year to get going. I’d put ‘Z’ in that same category last year. Now it’s his second year and things are a lot different.”

One of the few constants has been Chara’s ability to log plenty of ice time. After leading the NHL in that department last season at 27:57, Chara once again is among the League leaders, logging more than 27 minutes per game. And with the All-Star Game approaching, Chara is just 15 points shy of setting a new career high in points.

“He’s managed his minutes well,” Chiarelli said. “He’s playing as good or better than when he was in Ottawa. He’s been the best shut-down guy in the League, by far. I think statistically, he’s on pace for his best season.”

Chara, though, is much more interested in getting the Bruins back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2004, when they lost in the opening round to the Montreal Canadiens. Despite some key injuries – the team currently is without Murray (hip flexor strain) and Patrice Bergeron (concussion, broken nose) – Chara believes his team won’t be going home following its final regular-season game on April 5.

“We are hitting some bumps in the road right now,” Chara said. “It’s not easy. If you look at the standings, there are lots of teams that are fighting for the (playoff) spots. It’s been really, really tight lately. Any game can make a big difference at the end. We don’t want to let up. We want to keep winning. We’ve had some injuries lately, but that’s not an excuse. We just have to find a way to win games.”

That never was a problem in Ottawa. Should the Bruins be one of the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference when the regular season concludes, perhaps Chara’s adjustment process will be finalized?

“It was different,” Chara said of playing for the Senators. “Obviously, Ottawa has a different team. We know that we are a good enough team to be in the playoffs when we play our game. We just have to make sure we bring it every night and compete every night. We should be fine.”

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