By Joe Haggerty
BOSTON Zdeno Chara prides himself on the reputation hes built, and the respect he's earned, during his decade-plus in the National Hockey League.
Its no overstatement to say that Monday was a big day for a big man.
After more than a month of scrutiny following his hit on Max Pacioretty at the Bell Centre, which unfairly painted him to be some kind of fire-breathing monster, and the vague drama thats played out after a dehydration episode caused him to miss Game 2 against the Canadiens, its fair to say this has been the most challenging season of the 6-foot-9 defenseman's career. But he's fought through it all, and it hasn't gone unnoticed by his teammates.
Nor did the announcement on Monday that he was one of three finalists for the Norris Trophy as this season's top defenseman.
We actually talked about it a few weeks ago, and he said to me that he didnt think he was going to be a Norris finalist, said Charas defense partner, Dennis Seidenberg. I said Youll see and that he would be up there again. Sure enough he was. I think rightfully so, since hes so dominant in his own end and always seems to chip in with some really timely offense. Its what a Norris defenseman is all about.
If it was me, it would be really gratifying because there was so much negative stuff written about him . . . He must really be happy about being recognized.
Being able to bask in the announcement that he's a finalist for the fourth time in his career was a nice respite for Chara. Teammates could hear the relaxed tone in his voice and see the spring in his step as he enjoyed one of the best days hes probably had in more than a month.
With accusations of intentional dirty hits, and foolish criminal investigations, swirling all around him in addition to normal playoff pressure, Chara has been in the market for some good news for a good long while.
He finally received it, and was appropriately appreciative.
Its obviously a big honor. Im very humbled and very thankful, especially when you consider how many guys have had good seasons and breakout seasons, said Chara. Im just thankful that the people that did vote recognized the definition of the Norris Trophy award.
Chara has captured one Norris Trophy in his career -- in 2008-09, amid Bostons run to the top spot in the Eastern Conference -- and will compete for this one with Detroit's six-time Norris winner Nik Lidstrom, and Nashville's Shea Weber. All three Norris Trophy finalists hold elite reputations within the NHL as franchise defensemen, and each of them would be an excellent candidate for a number of different reasons. Each also has black marks against him.
Lidstrom is a force of nature who's still going strong for the Wings at age 40, but he also had the first negative plusminus of his career. That may be the first sign that the Swedish defenseman is starting to slow down, though 62 points and 23:28 of ice time per night might indicate otherwise.
Weber has the shot, the skating, the leadership and the reputation while playing for an up-and-coming Predators squad. But the argument could be made he isnt even having his best season in the NHL.
Clearly we know who Claude Julien thinks should take home the hardware from Las Vegas this summer as the best defensive defensemen in the game.
Obviously Chara's a well-deserving player, said the Bruins' coach. There are a lot of reasons. I think everyone who knows him here knows he plays lots of minutes. He also always plays against other teams' top lines. Hes utilized as a shutdown 'D' against the top players on other teams. The plusminus stats at the end of the year plus-33 . . . I think that speaks for itself . . . and certainly offensively hes contributed as well.
"If youre talking about Norris and talking about a defenseman that brings a lot, hes certainly one of them. I dont think there are many players in this league who will raise their hand and say they really enjoy playing against him.
Even though hes played in something of a weakened physical state against the Canadiens and -- as noted by ex-Bruins coach and noted CBC analyst Don Cherry last week -- is not quite as ferocious as normal, Chara still remains the most irreplaceable piece of the Black-and-Gold puzzle. He finished the year with similar offensive numbers to his Norris Trophy campaign two years ago, leads the Bruins with eight power-play goals, is Bostons best penalty killer and lines up against the oppositions best lines while leading all NHL defensemen with a plus-33 this season.
That leaves Chara at a whopping plus-68 in his five seasons with the Bruins. The plus-33 matches the best season of his career, which he achieved as a 26-year-old playing for a stacked Ottawa Senators team in 2003-04.
Chara has been incredibly heartened by the recognition he received as a true defenseman, as he is by the movement away from simply handing Norris recognition to the defenseman who posted the biggest set of fantasy stats. That played out in Chara reaching the top three in voting rather than offensive specialists like Anaheims Lubomir Visnovsky or Phoenixs Keith Yandle a pair of high-powered offensive defenseman who didnt factor into the penalty kill or play against other teams top lines during their breakthrough campaigns.
In the minds of many, it's true hockey value on the ice rather than gaudy point totals and power-play specialties that hold meaning when it comes to finding the best blueliner in the NHL landscape.
Its something I take a lot of pride in, said Chara. Im very competitive when it comes to defending top lines and playing against top lines. I know its not an easy job, but I really get up for it every night. You cant think that its just you. Its the five guys that are on the ice with you and the 25 guys that are on the team helping you. But its a big motivation for me to face such skill and great players.
It will be back to the riotous Bell Centre, and the grind of the playoffs, on Tuesday for Chara and the rest of the Bruins. But Monday was perhaps what the doctor ordered for the big fella.