Chara comes up big at right time

Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Ryan Malone challenges Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara during...

Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Ryan Malone challenges Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara during the third period in Game 5 of their NHL Eastern Conference Finals hockey game in Boston, Massachusetts May 23, 2011. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:06 PM ET

Zdeno Chara is a smart man.

While playing for the Ottawa Senators, he spent a portion of his time studying financial planning at Algonguin College because he wanted to be able to understand the forces that dictate the ebbs and flows of the economy, and, in turn, the money he was making work for him.

"Right now, I'd have to say I'm a pretty conservative investor," he was telling a visitor to his stall the other day.

Chara has invested in the restaurant business and in an emissions testing facility for cars in his native Slovakia.

Conservative.

For the most part, that is also his approach on the ice.

But he is also a man who has a sense for opportunity, both on and off the ice, and so it was that he made the play that led to the Boston Bruins winning goal in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final.

That is the judgement, the sense for the moment, the Bruins need from Chara heading into Game 6. They have the chance to eliminate the Tampa Bay Lightning and advance to their first Stanley Cup final in 31 years with a win.

There is the odd night when the 6-foot-9 Chara can be hard to spot. Especially come playoff time, when the performance of the Norris Trophy winner has, on occasion, been more uneven than any stock performance.

But now, with the Bruins just one win away from the final, their towering captain has taken his game to new heights. He was one of the best players on the ice in Boston's 3-1 win Monday, dominant at both ends of the ice.

As Boston coach Claude Julien put it, "our goal is not to play Game 7." To achieve that, they are going to need Chara to play the way he did in Game 5. Consistency from game to game has been an issue for the players, the teams, the flow and the outcomes in this series.

Julien had a meeting with Chara before Game 5. It's one of two or three talks the pair have had since the post-season started, the kind of dialogue that goes on between and a coach and different players depending on the situation.

Being a captain is an evolving thing. The message: Julien needed Chara, win or lose, to project the kind of attitude he did Monday night. A team takes its cues from its leaders, from the personalities that fill a dressing room, to varying degrees.

Those cues can be as subtle as body language. At this time of year, no detail goes unobserved.

The Bruins are going to need goaltender Tim Thomas to deliver the kind of save he made against Tampa's Steve Downie in the third period of Game 5, lunging back to get the blade of his stick on Downie's hard return of a carom off the end boards.

Depending on how things go from here, that stop on Downie has the potential to take on legendary proportions in Beantown.

In Game 4 here last Saturday, the Lightning seemed to focus on taking the game to Chara and Thomas. Lightning forward Ryan Malone was a physical force, colliding with Chara a couple of times, forcing a turnover that resulted in the first goal in the Bolts' comeback from a 3-0 deficit, and fencing with him in front of the net on another occasion. Chara wound up minus-2 in that one.

The Lightning hacked and whacked at Thomas, who had tweaked the Lightning with his comment that he had had it "easy" in his shutout victory in Game 3 (never mind what Thomas actually said was that his teammates made it easier for him).

But both players responded with an aggressive pushback in Game 5.

Chara's rush late in the second period resulted in the winning goal by Boston's Brad Marchand. Chara carried the puck up the ice, chipped it into the Lightning zone on the right wing and then rumbled after it, engaging Tampa defenceman Victor Hedman in a battle for the puck along the boards. He got body position on Hedman, shielding the puck while allowing Boston centre Patrice Bergeron to sweep in and feed a pass to Marchand in front.

"You always have to be smart about it," said Chara, who might have been talking about his investment strategy. "You can't just be forcing it in. But in those situations, I just pinched down lower to create some offence. Obviously, I had some room for it and that's what I did."

"He saw me coming down and I kind of yelled at him to let it go and he did," said Bergeron. "(Chara) was huge. He didn't give up much defensively. That's what we need from him, but at the same time offensively ... that pick was the reason I got that puck."

Chara will have to be a big part of the Bruins' special teams, again, if the Bruins are to advance. He and partner Dennis Seidenberg combined to lead the Bruins from the back end in killing all four Tampa power plays in Game 5. The Bruins power play hasn't been good, but the excellence of the penalty killers has pretty much neutralized the special teams play.

Julien even moved Chara to the front of the net on the Bruins power play.

"We've always had that plan in the backs of our minds and we talked about it (before Game 5) because our power play was not very good in Tampa. We said if it was going to happen again, we had to make some changes," said Julien. "We had Zdeno pegged to go to the front of the net. I know it takes something from the back end, but we had players we felt could maybe jump in at that point and maybe at least get some shots on net.

"I thought he did a great job in front. He's a big presence and a hard guy to move and we had some chances. Our power play, even if it didn't score, gave us at least a little bit of momentum."

On the flip side, the Lightning are now faced with the challenge Chara and Thomas met in Game 5.

Guys like captain Vincent Lecavalier (minus-1 in Game 5, with four shots) and Martin St. Louis (minus-2 and trailing Marchand on the winner), the veterans who have won a Stanley Cup, need to respond, especially with unexpected scoring hero Sean Bergenheim leaving early in Game 5 with a suspected groin or leg injury.

Lecavalier had a prime chance in the third period after the puck got away from Marchand in the Bruins' zone. With the puck on his stick, the trio of time and space and opportunity came together and ... he fired the puck into the middle of the spoked "B" on Thomas' chest like it was a target.

"You know what, it falls on everybody. I hate to point guys out and say you've got to be the guy and you've got to be the guy," said Tampa coach Guy Boucher. "Everybody's been the guy with us at one moment or another. So (Wednesday), it's a team thing. It can't be one guy taking all this pressure on his shoulders. Everybody has got to lift a load together, and we'll see who is going to come out big, but somebody will."

Now time is running out.

The Bruins and the Lightning face different circumstances heading into Game 6. Chara, Thomas, Lecavalier and St. Louis, despite what happened in Game 5, share the same realization, voiced by Chara, of what is necessary to either end it or force one more game.

"Play better than we did (in Game 5)."

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/CJ_Stevenson


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