By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — A perfect confluence of clever personnel additions and savvy coaching has helped the Bruins penalty kill rise to second in the NHL in efficiency this season.
Right in the middle of the Bruins’ improvement from being ranked 11th on the penalty kill last season to currently residing in second in the League at 87 percent effectiveness is captain Zdeno Chara, who at 39 years old has taken an expanded role in shorthanded situations. Boston’s penalty kill has helped it win two games in a row for the first time in almost a month and rise into a second-place tie in the Atlantic Division.
The Bruins’ penalty kill makeover started in the offseason with general manager Don Sweeney’s acquisition of Riley Nash, Dominic Moore and Tim Schaller. The Bruins mixed in rookie Austin Czarnik and maintained the elite-level shorthanded play of Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand to create the right recipe for three strong pairs of forwards.
Then the coaching element took over. Not only did coach Claude Julien and his staff have to put those pairs together, but they had to make other personnel decisions. Julien’s decision to remove Chara from the power play may have contributed to the Bruins ranking near the bottom of the league in that department most of the season. But with a power-play goal in four of their past five games, the Bruins are starting to look like they’re getting over the hump.
And with Chara not skating power-play minutes, he had room to add to his penalty-killing duties. From the start of the season, and even more so recently, Chara has done just that. He leads the league in shorthanded time on ice at 3:57 per game after averaging 3:19 last season. Calgary defenseman Mark Giordano is second at 3:28, but the Flames have been shorthanded the most times in the league; the Bruins have the sixth-most shorthanded chances to kill.
In the Bruins’ 3-1 win against Buffalo on Saturday, Chara logged 5:51 of shorthanded ice time while the team killed all four Sabres power plays.
“There’s no doubt where Zdeno doesn’t play power play much anymore — we just spot him here and there on the power play. Where he excels is defensively. So there’s one area there where he can help,” Julien explained after practice at Warrior Ice Arena on Sunday. “He’s capable of playing those minutes so we have to utilize him that way sometimes.”
Chara’s overall ice time – averaging 23:18 per game — is in line with his usual dose, as he averaged 24:06 last season and 23:21 the year before. Chara may not be getting the chance to pad his offensive stats with power-play time, but those penalty kills are just as vital to Boston’s fortunes. The way the Bruins defense corps is currently built without the injured John-Michael Liles, the only other left-handed shot is Torey Krug, who is no one’s idea of an ideal penalty killer. With rookie Brandon Carlo hitting a bump in the road lately, Boston can’t rely on him to be a solid penalty killer. Sometimes Adam McQuaid or Kevan Miller is in the penalty box. So then it’s time to ride Chara until the penalty is over.
Although he still thinks he’s 29 rather than 39, Chara knows there’s nothing he can do about the way Julien distributes ice time and the current strategy may be paying off with Chara being less exhausted. The roster has evolved to the point where there are other options (even though none have the hardest shot in the league) for point men on the power play and Boston is thin when it comes to penalty-kill defensemen.
With the type of character you’d expect from a player who’s been the Bruins’ captain for 11 seasons, Chara has accepted his role and filled it like a beast.
“I feel good. I always train really hard to play high minutes. Obviously I would like to be playing in all the situations,” he said. “I train really hard in summer to be able to do that. But it’s something that at this time I’m not, and I have to do whatever else I can to help the team win.”
The Bruins’ recent uptick in power-play production might be an anomaly and down the road they might decide they need a Chara blast to boost the threat level. An improved Carlo and a healthy Liles might be able to take some of the penalty-kill burden off Chara’s shoulders.
It doesn’t seem to matter, though, if Bruins’ penalty kill remains status quo. Chara is still an elite shutdown defender and the Bruins’ best bet might be to continue to let him anchor their successful penalty kill for as long as he can withstand the rigors of the job.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.