Although he’s quieted down a bit the past couple seasons, Brad Marchand is still one of the NHL’s leading chirpers.
But the Bruins forward doesn’t expect much will come out of his mouth when he goes head-to-head with former Boston captain Zdeno Chara for the first time Saturday, when the Bruins and Washington Capitals meet in D.C.
“No, you don’t want to poke the bear,” Marchand said this week. “You know he’s the kind of guy where when he’s out there, you’re an opponent, he’s not going to have any friends out there. He’s going to play the game and he’s going to compete and battle. I’m not going to poke the bear in any way.
“The biggest thing is to skate away from him. That’s all I can do is try to skate away from him because if you’re within his reach or within his grasp, you’re not going anywhere.”
Marchand might want to have a change of heart. Because since Chara left the Bruins for the Capitals as a free agent last month, the Bruins have done a lot worth chirping about. That’s why it’s maybe the best time for Boston to be in Washington — the Bruins can show Chara why they let him go, and they can test themselves against the only team ahead of them in the East Division standings.
The Bruins have won four in a row, with all of those victories coming against expected East title challengers Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and they’re 5-1-1 overall. The Bruins’ Chara-less defense is third in the NHL in goals allowed per game (1.86) behind the Dallas Stars and Carolina Hurricanes, two teams that have played just four games each because of COVID-19-related pauses. Boston’s penalty kill is No. 1 in the league at 93.1 percent efficiency.
How about the kids that have been thrust into major roles in the aftermath of Chara and Torey Krug’s departures? They’re all right. Jeremy Lauzon, paired with Charlie McAvoy on a nightly basis, is averaging 20:16 of ice time and making up for the occasional miscue with many more strong plays at both ends of the rink, 5-on-5 and shorthanded. Jakub Zboril is averaging 18:52 of ice time and has sufficiently filled into the Bruins’ third pair alongside a revitalized Kevan Miller.
The Bruins’ defense corps, which has had to deal with an injury hampering and occasionally sidelining Matt Grzelcyk, has passed the Flyers and Penguins tests. Now comes another pop quiz, which won’t exactly be a complete measuring stick because the Capitals are expected to still be without their “COVID 4” — Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Kuznetsov, Ilya Samsonov and Dmitry Orlov.
Despite missing those four key cogs for a week, the Capitals are still in first place at 5-0-3. Chara just scored his first goal and he’s averaging 20:29 of ice time (although he hasn’t been able to keep the Capitals’ penalty kill out of the bottom third of the league at 75.9 percent). So far Chara has proven the Bruins wrong about him being a part-time player, and you know he’ll have his new linemates fired up to face his friends-turned-foes.
He’ll probably use his play to tell the Bruins “I told you so” since he passed up a chance to express that feeling Friday.
“I’m just trying to focus on what I can do for this team and do my best to help this team any way I can,” he said. “And like I said the question before, try to come here every day in the right mindset and the right energy and work hard and do what I can to help this team win.”
Almost everyone on the Bruins side who has been asked has used the word strange, or some synonym, to explain what it’s been like to see Chara in red and blue and what it’ll be like to face him. Life without Chara has gone smoothly thus for, and we might not know just how much the Bruins miss him until the energy and physicality of the playoffs arrive in spring.
For now, the Bruins are in a groove, they look wise to have passed Chara’s ice time on to the younger guys and to have empowered their younger incumbents — Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Grzelcyk — to assume larger on- and off-ice roles. A win against the Capitals would continue to advance that narrative.