BOSTON — Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara is no stranger to shutting down the opponent’s top forward and/or line in a Stanley Cup playoff series.
As a result of Dennis Seidenberg’s knee surgery in January, Chara has a new defense partner in Dougie Hamilton this postseason, but the results for Boston’s top pairing have been equally positive.
Chara and Hamilton have shut down the Montreal Canadiens’ top line, which has featured center David Desharnais and winger Max Pacioretty in each of the four games (the right wing spot has seen several players).
“That’s priority No. 1, I think,” Hamilton said Saturday when asked about defending the Pacioretty line. “For me, I just try to shut down their top lines and play physical on them, limit them. … All of our D-men have been doing a good job of that, and staying aware and limiting our mistakes.”
Pacioretty, whose 39 goals ranked fourth in the NHL during the regular season, has made no impact against the Chara-Hamilton duo. Montreal’s chances of winning this second-round series will be slim if he doesn’t start scoring goals and generating more chances for his linemates.
“Chara’s been really good this series. … Obviously he’s difficult to play against, but it’s a great challenge for me,” Pacioretty said Saturday after Montreal’s morning skate. “First four games I’ll give him the edge, he was the better of the two players. I just need to worry about the future. There’s three games left for me to prove myself. This is a real gut-check time.”
Chara was on the ice for 82 percent of Pacioretty’s even-strength shifts in the first two games at TD Garden, and the Habs forward failed to tally a point and registered only one shot on goal. With the Canadiens having the last line change at home in Games 3 and 4, Pacioretty got a little more time away from Chara, but the results were very similar (zero points, five total SOG).
For Chara, matching up against elite forward is the norm, but for Hamilton, it’s an adjustment he’s made in his first full NHL season.
“It’s something I’ve gotten used to this year, something I’ve taken pride in,” Hamilton said. “It’s easy to play with (Chara), he’s pretty intimidating to play against and obviously one of the best D-men in the world. I’m just trying to be physical with them, take away their time and space.”
Hamilton’s partnership with Chara has greatly impacted his development this season. The 20-year-old D-man is playing with more poise, committing fewer turnovers and his positioning has improved.
“It’s very important to be able to use your reach when you’re a taller guy,” Chara said of Hamilton. “He’s done a really good job improving every aspect of his game.”
As a tandem, Chara and Hamilton have a combined corsi-for percentage (puck possession stat) of 57.3, and the Bruins are averaging 10.7 percent more shots when the duo is on the ice. In many situations, the best defense is controlling possession of the puck and sustaining attacking-zone pressure, and the Chara-Hamilton combo has accomplished this so far.
Playing a physical brand of hockey also is important against any top line, especially one that lacks size and strength like Montreal’s.
In Game 4, the Bruins got back to their physical brand of hockey, finished their checks and cleared traffic from the front of the net. Pacioretty has been a target of Boston’s physical play, and that game plan again will be used Saturday night, with a 3-2 series lead at stake.
“I don’t think anyone wants to get hit, especially not by someone who’s 6-foot-9 and a monster,” Hamilton said. “We got to keep wearing them down and playing the same way.”
Advanced stats via Extra Skater