CHICAGO -- If you’re going to poke the bear, you better back it up.
The Chicago Blackhawks did just that Saturday night in a crucial 3-1 win in Game 5, once again victimizing Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara for a pair of goals in the matchup of each team’s top players.
It’s a tantalizing sight every time Jonathan Toews’ line goes out against Big Z. It’s as if time stands still while the most important matchup of the series plays itself out every fourth shift or so.
Chara certainly responded too, playing one hell of a final 30 minutes as he tried to will his team back, scoring his team’s lone goal and hitting every Blackhawk in sight while logging 24:22 of ice time. The Bruins' captain finished extremely strong, which comes as no surprise. You rarely get two average games in a row from the big guy.
Still, he was minus-2 on the night and looked a little unhinged in the opening half of the game as the Toews line buzzed around him.
On the second goal, Chara couldn’t get to Bryan Bickell, who was circling behind the net, and also left Patrick Kane uncovered in front of the net. Kane’s goal stood up as the winner, again a play that was very un-Chara-like.
Meanwhile, Bickell hit Chara every chance he got, knocking him down in front of the Bruins' bench in the second period, enraging Milan Lucic, who invited Bickell to a fight. The hulking Hawks winger declined, his energy better saved for his next shift, where he had to tangle with big No. 33 on the Bruins.
"For me, I’m the biggest guy on our team and I know we’re going to clash at times in games," Bickell, who led the Hawks with six hits, said of Chara. "He logs a lot of minutes and we need to slow him down in any way, whether it’s me or someone else. I know he was getting frustrated out there and hopefully we can keep it going."
The focus on Chara began after Wednesday night’s Game 4 overtime victory in Boston, a game in which Chara was on the ice for five Hawks goals, turned inside-out by the Toews line. Afterward, the Hawks captain raised eyebrows when he suggested that while Chara was a great player whom the Blackhawks respected, they were not intimidated by him and felt they could outwork him. It was a comment backed firmly by teammate Brent Seabrook in the ensuing days off before Game 5.
It’s not every day in the NHL that players deliver those kinds of comments. This is a sport famously shy about stirring the pot in the other dressing room, the least of which could give one of the league’s most talented and physically imposing defensemen any kind of extra motivation.
But I don’t believe it was about trying to get into Chara’s kitchen. Everyone knows that’s just not going to happen. I think this was more about Toews, as captain of his team, pumping up his own team’s confidence by coming out and saying his team is not scared of the challenge that lie ahead.
One Hawks player, who shall remain nameless, told me after practice on Friday that it was "ballsy by Jonny, and it really got us going in here."
Leadership in a different form, if you will.
"There’s certainly respect there, no question we respect Chara and the way that he plays the game and the quality of player that he is," Hawks star Patrick Sharp said after Game 5. "But we’ve got some good players on our team, too. At the end of the day, that’s how things are going to be settled. There’s no disrespect from Seabs or Jonny in what they said, they were more concerned with themselves and how they can play. And obviously that line did a great job tonight."
Indeed, Kane’s two goals, with Toews assisting on both before leaving the game with an upper-body injury, gave more meaning to what the Hawks had to say between games because they backed up their statements.
"I don’t see it as disrespect in any way to Chara," said Hawks blueliner Duncan Keith. "We’ve always said that we’ve got respect for Chara. He’s one of the best defensemen in the league. He showed how great he was tonight, that was a great shot by him. ... I think there’s a fine line between being respectful and being overly respectful. Just because you want to have that respect but don’t want to be over-respectful, doesn’t mean you’ll be disrespectful."
Keith says it’s about the Hawks, their own confidence, their own approach.
"We got to play our game, you know? We’ve done that the last couple of games a bit more," added Keith.
You need a certain level of swagger and confidence to win a championship. Both these teams have it.
Consider the context in which Toews’ postgame comments came out of Wednesday night. His Blackhawks had just basically saved their season and avoided a 3-1 series deficit, he was on a high, and some of the talk after Game 3 heading into Game 4 was whether the Hawks had that same moxie, that same mental toughness that the Bruins have displayed the last few years. The Bruins had won two straight and people wondered if Chicago had what it took to respond.
So, in many ways, all this Chara talk from the Hawks was more about their own mental approach, their desire to play the way they know they can and rise up the challenge.
Clearly, that was missing in Games 2 and 3 -- both Bruins victories -- when the Hawks couldn’t find their game and the same approach that’s made them successful this season.
"I don't know if we couldn't or if it was just a different mindset as far as making sure," said Keith. "There's a difference between wanting to do it and making sure you do it. That's a big difference."
What’s noticeable in these two straight victories by the Hawks is their ability to create more space for themselves by using their speed and also getting more traffic around Tuukka Rask.
"I think a lot of it just comes from being confident with the puck and coming with more speed in the neutral zone," said Keith. "Sometimes it's a matter of getting it in deep. I think a big difference has been trying to get to the net and trying to get inside, not just shooting from the outside. When we shoot from the outside, we have to have guys going to the net. It's the same every team says and we're no different."
But not every team pokes the Chara bear. Gutsy? You bet.