It all begins with Z

DON BRENNAN -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 11:23 AM ET

Anything that was under Zdeno Chara's Christmas tree would probably pale by comparison to what the Senators' single-most important skater could wind up with in the next sixth months.

A medal from the Olympics. A Stanley Cup ring. A Norris Trophy. A multi-year contract from the Senators. All are within the grasp of the long-reaching Slovakian defenceman as he begins what should be a very busy first six months of

It's not like Chara was asking Santa to leave him promissory notes for any of the above heading into the team's two-day holiday season, though.

"I just want to be healthy, that's all I ask for," he said prior to the Senators 4-2 victory over the New York Islanders on Friday. "Being healthy and being able to perform. Obviously, I'm going to try to do my best to accomplish whatever I can; hopefully the injuries will stay away. When you're healthy you can accomplish things just by working hard and playing well."

Chara has already accomplished plenty in the 32 of Ottawa's 33 games he has played this season --even though numbers alone wouldn't make him the Norris finalist he was in 2003-04 if voting was done today.

BUSIEST SENATOR

As far as workloads go, he's the busiest Senator but only the ninth most-used player in the NHL, with an average ice time of 27:43. With 19 points (seven goals) he is tied for 22nd among the league's defencemen leaders, and his plus-17 is tied for 11th best of all skaters.

The stats would no doubt be higher if Chara wasn't the third-most penalized player in the NHL, or had he not served a one-game suspension for thumping Kings defenceman Tim Gleason as retaliation for a drubbing given one of his teammates. But his ability to play like an all-star and fight/protect like a Manhattan nightclub bouncer is what makes Chara so valuable, so good, so deserving of consideration as the game's best defenceman.

When Dany Heatley followed up a goal on Long Island by skating over to netminder Rick DiPietro and barked in his face in an impromptu coming together of the top two picks in the 2000 entry draft (Heatley said he was only chirping at DiPietro because DiPietro had been chirping at him), an all-out brawl might have ensued had Chara not rushed to Heatley's side.

And if two of the biggest factors for Ottawa holding its lofty status as the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference are the goaltending of Dominik Hasek and Ray Emery and the scoring feats of the Heatley-Jason Spezza-Daniel Alfredsson line, then Chara should get recognition for his traffic clearing in front of the two 'tenders and giving room and confidence to the top line, since he is often on the ice at the same time as those three stars.

He's often out against the opposition's best players, too, and while he didn't fare so well against Alex Kovalev in Montreal's victory over Ottawa last Monday or Peter Forsberg and Simon Gagne in a one-goal loss to Philadelphia on Wednesday, the Senators' remarkable 24-6-3 record suggests his mediocre/poor performances are greatly outnumbered by the good/great ones.

Chara, who did render Alexei Yashin invisible in the win over the Islanders, will have to contend with a true offensive heavyweight tonight when Jaromir Jagr and the much-improved New York Rangers drop by the Corel Centre.

Jagr, who leads Alfredsson atop the league scoring race by a 54-50 points count, will be sure to see plenty of Ottawa's big No. 3.

"It's always hard comparing (your own performance) in different seasons, but I think the way you can look at it is by how the team is doing," Chara said when asked if he thought he was playing as well as he did in '03-04. "That's the most important thing. We're winning and obviously we have a goal this season to be the last team to leave the ice. Everything else is going to the side.

"You don't want to look too far ahead. Just take it as it is, day-by-day, game-by-game and try to do your best."

Next up, Jagr. It should be a great matchup to watch.

don.brennan@ott.sunpub.com 


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