Of all the subplots within the larger context of this first-round series between the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins, one that will weigh heavily on the outcome will be the matchup between captains Alex Ovechkin and Zdeno Chara.
On one side, there’s Ovechkin, who despite a career-worst, 65-point regular season still finished as the league’s fifth-highest goal scorer (38). On the other side, there’s mountainous 6-foot-9, 255-pound Chara, who is arguably the most complete defenseman in the league and a regular contender for the Norris Trophy.
Both players take pride in facing the other.
“It’s a great battle between me and him. I think he’s top D in the league,” Ovechkin said. “I love playing against him, especially when it’s going to be playoffs. It’s going to be fun.”
Chara, who finished the regular season with 52 points and a plus-33 rating in an average of 25 minutes per game, echoed that sentiment to reporters in Boston on Monday.
“It’s something that motivates me,” Chara said. “It’s something that I enjoy, competing against the best players.
“Obviously, they have a few great players on their team. Sometimes the matchups are hard to get, especially on the road. When you do get them, you want to make the best out of them.”
Since Chara joined the Bruins in the 2006-07 season, Ovechkin has faced him 21 times, recording 10 goals and 15 assists. But in the past two years, he has just one goal and seven assists in seven games against Boston and its all-star blueliner. The Capitals left wing hasn’t recorded a goal in his last four appearances against the Bruins; the most recent tally came on Nov. 5, 2010.
Ovechkin and Chara were quick to point out that there is more for each team to worry about in this series than simply their individual battle, but both know that their success or failure will play a role in attaining the larger goal of advancing to the second round.
The 2011-12 campaign was far from a consistent one for Ovechkin but he found a spark in the final month of the season, recording 12 goals and four assists in his final 16 regular season games.
On Monday, Coach Dale Hunter had Ovechkin skating with Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer. He has used that trio in the past to counteract opponents’ physicality and size — they are all at least 6-feet-2, 210 pounds — and against Boston’s big defender, the hope is they can help create more time and space as a group.
“I think over the years they’ve been playing against each other, so I think they know each other,” Hunter said of Ovechkin and Chara. “And it’s just that you have to work as a line. It’s not Ovi against Chara; it’s the line against the Boston Bruins. Not just Chara, either.”
Brouwer said one of the keys to helping create room for Ovechkin against Chara is to try to cut the behemoth defenseman off from the rest of the Bruins, leave him with fewer options and keep him as far away from the puck as much as possible. That’s all easier said than done, though.
“You can finish him, you can dump it in his corner and you can try to isolate him away from the puck as much as you can,” Brouwer said. “But he’s probably going to be on the ice whenever Ovi is, and that’s a pretty daunting task for both players, to be honest. They’re both good players, they both need to find room out there and I think it’s going to be a real good battle in this series.”