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Opponents still trying to figure how to slow Chara

by Matt Kalman
WILMINGTON, Mass. -- It was an on-ice occurrence rarer than the glass breaking and even more eye-popping.

As Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara went back into his team's defensive zone to retrieve the puck last Saturday, the Bruins captain was hit from behind by Winnipeg forward Alexander Burmistrov. The check, which was penalized with a boarding minor, didn't just rattle the biggest player in the NHL, it toppled the 6-foot-9, 225-pounder all the way to the ice.

Chara got up, dusted himself off and went back to the business of helping the Bruins win for the 11th time in 12 games. Nearly two months into the 2011-12 season, the hit might have been the only thing that has slowed Chara down for even a brief moment.


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The 2009 Norris Trophy winner has been presenting his case as the NHL's best defenseman since the start of the season -- both during the Bruins' 3-7-0 start and their recent 11-0-1 run to the top half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. They'll square off with the Toronto Maple Leafs in a home-and-home series starting Wednesday at the Air Canada Centre, with first place in the Northeast Division on the line.

While he says he hasn't changed anything about his approach, Chara has added an unprecedented amount of offensive production to his consistently stifling defensive prowess this season.

"I'm trying to really focus on my defensive end, and once I know I did that job usually you get the chances offensively," Chara said after a recent practice at Ristuccia Arena. "It's always been my (plan). I never felt that I should be thinking offense first before defense. My priority's always playing a solid defensive game, do my job, and then I get the chances offensively, as well."

Chara recorded a career-best 51 points in 2007-08 and then scored 50 the next season. He hasn't reached 50 points since. With 4 goals and 16 points this season, however, he's on pace for the first 60-point season of his career. The 16 points are the most he has recorded in the first 22 games of the season since Claude Julien took over as Bruins coach in 2007-08.

"Well, I think one thing is our power play is better this year. … We're spending a lot more time (on the attack) and we're doing a better job of controlling the puck in the offensive zone," said Julien, whose team ranked 13th with a 17.5-percent power-play success rate heading into Tuesday's games. "And he's in a position now where we're setting him up for a lot of shots and he's taking those. He's putting himself in a position where he's got a shooting lane, as well. So I think that's gotten better and that's really helped him.

"But at the same time he's moving the puck well. I think he understands that the simple play sometimes is the best play for him. And especially lately, I think he's been making those quick outlet passes, or even from the neutral zone he's moving the puck up the ice quick, and that transition game has helped him get some points."

Advanced statistics show Chara is last on the team in offensive-zone starts, according to Combine that with the fact that playing against the other team's top offensive producers every night forces him to be extra discerning when it comes to taking an offensive risk, and it's amazing he can put up any type of offensive numbers. Chara credits the confidence and defensive responsibility of his teammates, in addition to his better play, with increased opportunities for points.

All the while, the best scorers in the League haven't been able to solve Chara. Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos, Columbus' Rick Nash and Ottawa's Jason Spezza all failed to register a point against the Bruins this season. New York Islanders star center John Tavares managed just 1 assist in two games.

Most famously, former Bruins and current Maple Leafs scorer Phil Kessel, who leads the NHL in goals and points, is pointless with just three shots on net in two games against Chara and Boston.

"He's just playing his game. He plays physical and he's really emotional. And he just brings it every game. That's what you need," said Johnny Boychuk, Chara's defense partner.

Chara will turn 35 before the season is over, but he's playing in the first season of a seven-year contract extension he signed in October 2010, 10 months before he would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency. When the deal was announced, critics scoffed at the length and the thought that Chara would be able to hold up past the age of 40 playing with the type of physicality he displays.

We won't know for some time if Chara will be worth the nearly $7 million per season he's scheduled to make through the end of the 2017-18 season as he approaches the age his fiercest contemporary rival, Nicklas Lidstrom, is thriving at now. All we know is Chara seems to be improving at 34, so by the time he's dropping off that might just bring his level down to that of a typical All-Star.

"I feel good, I feel young," said Chara. "I know that age is one thing, but that's what I train for," said Chara, who is famous for rigorous in-season and off-season workouts. "I take a lot of pride in it and I just want to be always effective and always improving. I never feel that, 'OK, this is it,' and there's no room to improve. I know that there is always room for improvement, no matter who you are.

"There's always things that you or somebody thinks, 'Hey, maybe I can do this a little bit better.' It's kind of like picking on the little things, but those little things, when you get better, they make those bigger things better. So you have to keep trying. It's one of those things that you really can't say, 'Well, I tried, it's not working.' You have to keep trying, because practice is going to make it happen for you."

Chara had just come off the ice after practice much later than most of his teammates -- he stayed out with healthy scratches Jordan Caron and Steven Kampfer -- when he uttered that last phrase. Nothing seems capable of holding him down in his pursuit of all-round greatness.
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