Kovacevic: Letang vs. Chara, winner takes all
It would be silly to suggest that a matchup of two of the NHL's finest defensemen, the Penguins' Kris Letang and the Bruins' Zdeno Chara, could singularly decide the upcoming Eastern Conference final.
And I'll let Letang outline three reasons for that, culling from a talk the other day at Consol Energy Center:
1. “Well, first of all, we're both defensemen, so he's not the guy I'll be worried about most of the time.”
2. “There are a lot of great players on our team and theirs. You never know who's going to step up.”
3. “I mean, look at him.”
Yeah, right. The 6-foot-9 Chara, a Norris Trophy winner and Boston's championship captain, is best known for his uncanny size — think T-Rex on skates — as well as the 105 mph shot, the durability to handle ice time by the hour and, above all, a defensive presence that spans from here to Bratislava.
Aside from Letang now ascending to Norris finalist, he's got zippo in common with Zdeno.
And yet, I'll still say this: If Letang outperforms Chara, Penguins win. If Chara outperforms Letang, Bruins win.
No, to repeat, it's not that simple. Any number of team or individual elements could overshadow Letang and Chara. But for a broader range of reasons, I expect that their relative performances will provide the best barometer.
To explain …
The Penguins' plan is to hit Chara at every turn. That's no secret. That was their plan through winning all three regular-season meetings, it's been their plan all through Dan Bylsma's tenure, and it even traces its roots back to those Pittsburgh-Boston playoff matchups in the early 1990s, when Bob Errey, Troy Loney, Phil Bourque and others would pound the great Raymond Bourque with each forecheck. Sometimes not all that legally.
By late in those series, Ray Bourque was going back for the puck the way you'd pursue a hand grenade.
“We wore him down,” Errey was recalling Tuesday. “He was a target, for sure, and as the series would go on, he was a non-factor. Nobody likes to be hit that much. And, hey, even the big oak Chara can be chopped down to size!”
The Penguins will, indeed, do that to Chara. They'll do it with Brenden Morrow, Matt Cooke, Craig Adams and others. And they'll do it in a way the Bruins' first two opponents, the soft Maple Leafs and the who-needs-a-forecheck Rangers, didn't.
“He's got to expect that,” Brooks Orpik said of Chara. “There's nothing any defenseman hates more than having to look over his shoulder all the time, knowing he's going to get hit. You look at the Ottawa series we just had, and it was the opposite. They didn't hit our D at all, and it really made a difference for us.”
The big, bruising Bruins will hit, too, and they'll similarly target Letang. Or at least try. It's tough to hit what you can't catch, and no player on either side matches his skill/speed/stamina combo.
Maybe not even Sidney Crosby at the moment.
“Tanger's just been unbelievable,” the captain said.
Statistics for defensemen tend to be fraught with flaws, but his 16 points and plus-7 rating — both tied for the Penguins' best this postseason — don't lie. Especially against Ottawa, Letang was brilliant at both ends.
Not so much against the Islanders.
“Those guys,” Letang said of John Tavares and Co. with a bitter bristle, “if I go up on the rush, they would have four guys behind me, one quick pass, and boom … they were gone. I couldn't go up. Never.”
He hardly was alone. The Islanders' transition at times was sensational.
Along came Ottawa …
“The Senators were a lot more organized. But for me, that was good. I could watch video and know where they'd be, how they'd forecheck. The Islanders … you never knew. They were everywhere.”
That's why, in Game 4 in Canada's capital, Letang was rushing at will in that four-assist beauty. “I knew if I went up, someone could cover me.”
The Bruins, even more disciplined than the Senators within Claude Julien's tight system, sound amply aware.
“He's a very skilled player, obviously,” Chara told TribLIVE Radio on Tuesday. “He earned his right to be nominated for the Norris. He had a great season, and he's a great player.”
That won't change.
Letang will outperform Chara, in part because of how these teams' respective strategies and supporting casts will work in his favor, in part because, well, the kid's pretty good.
Oh, and Penguins in six.