Oh they love that Dirty Water. Almost as much as they love Larry Bird, Shawn Thornton, co-opting meathead faux-Irish culture, and racism.
They also love Zdeno Chara, but for all the wrong reasons, namely for when he fights or when he nearly decapitates Max Pacioretty. But word out of Boston tonight is that Big Z will make his return to the lineup coming off a knee injury sustained on October 23rd. The B’s have gone 11-8-1 without Chara, which isn’t bad for missing a generational defenseman, but certainly well below the standard they set last year and beneath what are still championship aspirations, albeit in an ever closing window coinciding with Chara’s advancing age. Prior to his injury Chara was his usual dominant self in terms of possession, sporting a 56.6% share at evens while taking on the toughest the opposition can throw at him. And though the big man is coming off an injury which might hinder his mobility, Claude Julien will likely throw him into the deep end tonight as well.
What should be encouraging for the Bruins and their fans is that Chara’s injury led to an increas in responsibility for one Douglas “Dougie” Hamilton, and he for the most part has excelled. He’s taking tougher assignments and zone starts than he ever has previously, and he’s for the most part flipping the ice. Hamilton probably won’t end up being the seismic force that Chara has been the last decade, but as he continues to approach the all important 200 game mark as a pro, he’s showing he can be a reliable top pairing guy. This has enabled Julien to keep the likes of Tory Krug and Matt Bartkowski sheltered, which he will no doubt continue to do at home tonight with last change.
Up front it appears that David Krejci will still remain out for the Bruins despite practicing with the Bruins top line between Milan Lucic and Loui Eriksson. But Krejci isn’t really the Bruins #1 center anyway, as it’s obviously Patrice Bergeron, who is also their leading scorer at present with 19 points. Bergeron has been his usual self, driving play against the opposition’s best and basically doing absolutely everything that’s asked of him. Carl Soderberg has provided some decent scoring depth in Krejci’s absence, as he’s on pace for a career best 53 points and currently is only a point behind Bergeron for the team lead, predictably in a free agent walk year. Soderberg is far and away the biggest center the B’s have on their roster at 6’3″ 216 lbs, and poses a matchup problem for the Hawks assuming that Toews and Bergeron dry hump to a stand still as is customary. Milan Lucic is still a huge asshole of an orc and Brad Marchand is a fucking weasel, but both can play, and Marchand currently leads the team with 8 goals while playing alongside Bergeron.
The problem for the Bruins, aside from missing Chara and Krejci for extended periods of time, has been that Tuukka Rask has been well off his Vezina wining standard set a year ago, and it’s impossible to think that the two aren’t related. Even though the B’s have taken a dip in possession, they’re still in the top third of the league carrying a 52.4% share and are shooting right around the league average at 7.9%. But Rask is down from .941/.873 at even strength and PK save percentage last year to .923/.835 this year. Not terrible numbers (at least at even strength), but the number shorthhanded has led to an uncharacteristically mediocre-to-bad PK (78.4%, 23rd overall) with Chara unable to clear the road in front of Rask, leading to more high-percentage chances in front. His return should help bring those numbers back up, however.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, the message once again appears to be one of staying the course, with no lineup changes coming off of the shootout victory Tuesday in Jersey. Klas Dahlbeck will remain in the lineup after a little bit harsher go of things against the Devils, and things will only ramp up tonight as Julien will look to get at the Hawks third pairing with last change. His ability to weather what will in all likelihood be a hellacious and physical Bruins forecheck will go a long way in gauging his viability as an option for when the games really begin to count in the spring.
LOCAL KID Scott Darling once again gets the nod in the crease, though Corey Crawford surprisingly made the trip and skated today, and will remain out. It’s starting to become more and more clear who Quenneville prefers as Crawford’s backup going forward, and this will be a big test for Darling playing in a hostile environment with crashing forwards abound. Even were this not an audition, that style plays more to his strengths of being positionally sound and covering a lot of territory while remaining strong down low amid traffic.
Chara figures to be put to the test right off the bat in his return staring down the Toews-Hossa-Saad line, who has stepped things up in terms of scoring and possession since the Versteeg-Richards-Kane line has cooled off a bit against Montreal, Nashville, and Jersey. Assuming Chara is paired with his usual mate Dennis Seidenberg, this line is likely to see Hamilton most of the night, and given his size at 6’5″, 200ish lbs, it may be a matchup problem for them. The biggest fear however comes in terms of Andrew Shaw possibly having to corral Soderberg, and look for Julien to try to exploit that whenever he can.
While the Bruins are limping along a bit losing 5 of their last 7 including 0-fer in California, coming home for the first time in a couple weeks and getting Chara back should provide a big boost (GET IT), and have them looking to establish a physical tone early. The key for the Hawks will be as it ever has with the Bruins and teams like them, and that’s to absorb the hits and find the space behind the forecheckers to gain speed through the neutral zone in breakouts and transition. The Hawks have shown that Chara can be beaten wide, and that was 18 months worth of games ago when he wasn’t coming off a knee ligament injury. That’s not to say that it will be easy in any way, shape or form, and expect a playoff chess match feel to this one. Eight is better than seven. Let’s go Hawks.