Johnston: ‘Hawks treat Chara like he’s invisible

Chicago Blackhawks left wing Bryan Bickell (29) and centre Jonathan Toews (19) skate past Zdeno Chara as they celebrate the winning goal by Brent Seabrook, not shown, against Boston Bruins in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final. (AP/Charles Krupa)

CHICAGO – As if competing for the Stanley Cup isn’t difficult enough, the Chicago Blackhawks are also trying to make a six-foot-nine man disappear.

That’s because their new strategy for dealing with Zdeno Chara is simply acting like he’s not there.

It clearly worked in Game 4, where Chicago was able to score five of its six goals with the black and yellow beast on the ice. To put that in context, Chara had only been out for one goal against in the previous seven games combined.

“I think maybe at times in the first couple games we were giving him a little bit too much respect by trying to keep the puck away from him,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “He’s not a guy that we should be afraid of. We should go at him, protect the puck from him, make plays around him and (go) through him.”

If you go back and watch Brent Seabrook’s overtime winner from Wednesday night, it’s notable how much of a beating Toews patiently took from Chara at the edge of the crease.

That provided the screen on Tuukka Rask which was ultimately responsible for the goal.

Chara was also beaten on a pair of 2-on-1s in that game — he went after puck-carrier Brandon Saad on the first one and splayed out to try and intercept the pass on the second — and saw another goal go in after Bryan Bickell had knocked him to the ice.

It was not a textbook night.

Even still, there is no more disruptive defensive force in the sport than Chara. Part of it simply comes down to his unparalleled size and reach, something opposing players always have in the back of their minds.

The Blackhawks were no different when the puck dropped on this Stanley Cup final and saw their top forwards spread out across three lines. However, they abandoned the strategy after falling behind 2-1 in the series and it worked — for one night anyway.

“For us, I think we’re better when we’re just playing hockey and not worrying so much about him,” Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane said after Friday’s practice at United Center. “If you think about figuring him out or trying to play against him, it only goes to your disadvantage because you’re thinking too much.”

Here’s betting that Chara will find one way or another to get them thinking about him again in Game 5.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Slovak is that at age 36 he’s shown absolutely no signs of slowing down. Heck, he’s played 48 minutes more than any other NHL player this post-season (Chicago’s Duncan Keith is second).

So with two off days to recover from the Game 4 loss there is virtually no chance the Blackhawks will be able to get as much done against Chara on Saturday. In fact, they may have given him a little extra motivation.

“He’s always come out and responded the next game,” Bruins winger Milan Lucic said. “Actually out of all the guys I’ve played with, I don’t think there is a guy that takes more pride in himself and how he approaches the game on and off the ice and takes care of himself.

“I think he’s going to be ready come tomorrow.”

The man is built for these types of games.

Very few NHLers that could even contemplate getting through Chara’s off-season fitness regimen, which usually includes biking some of the mountain stages featured in the Tour de France. Teammate Andrew Ference has been on a leisurely ride with him back here in North America — “not a serious one,” he noted — and came away impressed.

“He has to carry a lot of extra weight,” Ference said. “(His fitness level) is not a secret formula or anything, it’s hard work. If you keep good care of your body and put the hours and sleep and eat right and don’t spend your nights partying all night. …

“The hours and the hard work has obviously helped him be the player he is, but it’s also helped him remain competitive.”

Ference played against Chara as a gangly teenager in the Western Hockey League and never would have guessed he’d become as good as he is today.

Now he tends to be the focal point every time he steps on the ice.

The one thing Chicago would be wise to continue doing against the Bruins captain is engaging him physically. Back in the first round, Toronto had some success when players hit him at every possible opportunity.

For as imposing as he appears on the ice, he’s not invincible.

“Not a lot of guys challenge him and hit him,” Bickell said. “They just kind of fade off or start backchecking. You just hit him and see what happens — I don’t think anybody likes being hit.

“We just need to finish our checks against him.”

Despite the fact some of his teammates made it sound like Chicago had experienced an epiphany when it came to Chara, veteran Blackhawks winger Patrick Sharp was a little more realistic.

He’s been around the block and back a few times during his career and provided a good explanation for what transpired in Game 4.

“I just think that was kind of a fluke game,” Sharp said. “That’s not going to happen very often with him. To think that we have anything figured out is ridiculous — he’s a great player.

“I don’t think Boston cares that he was on the ice for five goals, they’ll have him out there every opportunity they can.”

Whether the Blackhawks claim to see him or not.

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