By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
It may feel like ancient history, but it was a February comeback win over the Edmonton Oilers — on the road, no less — late last year that then-40-year-old Zdeno Chara and the Bruins made Connor McDavid absolutely disappear into thin air.
It was in their last meeting that Chara was handed a 15:12 head-to-head segment of five-on-five play against McDavid. And it was within that segment that Chara and the Bruins dominated, with a 62.5 Corsi-For percentage against McDavid, as the B’s out-chancing the Oilers 12-to-4. With nine of McDavid’s 20 zone starts beginning in the Boston zone, no less.
The Bruins seemed determined to go back to this matchup on Thursday with their starting lineup decision to put both the Patrice Bergeron line and Chara-Charlie McAvoy pairing against McDavid. But as the Oilers got Chara spinning in the neutral zone, No. 97 turned the jets on and found himself in all alone against Bruins backup Jaroslav Halak. He did not miss, and just like that, the Oilers were on the board, a sequel to last February’s gameplan was off to a rougher start than The Last Jedi.
“He’s the fastest guy in the league and he can make things happen out there real quick,” Halak acknowledged. “You know, he needs only one break away to score and unfortunately for us, that’s not that start we wanted to have to give him a breakaway.”
But from that point on, the Bruins made McDavid a complete afterthought.
“The [McDavid goal], Bergy’s working back, Zee’s up, it’s just a bit of tough – like I said, it just finds him and off he goes. So, it wasn’t like he got behind us free, it was more about that the puck squirted through to him and kind of got between our two guys,” said Cassidy. “Might’ve been a moment’s hesitation. Other than that, I don’t remember him, he got it wide once with a net drive, which periodically happens, but we cut him off and forced him to make a play to the front, which we defended.”
Following the goal, McDavid was able to get just two even-strength shots on net. One was a backhand attempt from 20 feet away, and the other was a deflection snuffed out by Halak. McDavid would fire a shot during an Edmonton power-play opportunity, sure, but that was a wrist shot 24 feet away from Halak’s crease, and was not your typical McDavid Chance.
In total, McDavid’s night came to a close with four shots on six attempts, and with an awful 6-for-17 mark at the faceoff dot, including an 0-for-4 line in offensive-zone faceoffs (three of which came against Bergeron, and the other against Sean Kuraly).
With McDavid on the ice for 16:52 of five-on-five play by the night’s end, it was not a shock to see how the Bruins handled that.
The 6-foot-9 Chara was on the ice for 13:43 of that 16:52, and the Bruins surrendered just seven shots on goal in this matchup. Bergeron, meanwhile, was on the ice for 9:43 of McDavid’s 16:52, and in addition to No. 37’s aforementioned domination at the dot, McDavid’s Oilers generated just three shots on goal and not a single high-danger scoring chance during that 9:43 stretch.
When the Chara-Bergeron group needed a breather, Cassidy happily deployed his reckless-and-blurring fourth line of Chris Wagner-Sean Kuraly-Noel Accari against McDavid. One of the big reasons for that was because the Bruins believed that Kuraly had the size and speed — controlled or not — to at least shadow McDavid around the attacking zone. McDavid broke even in just one matchup among any Boston player with whom he had at least four minutes of five-on-five ice-time against (Wagner).
And with McDavid neutralized, the Bruins made it a point to then take his options away, as both Ty Rattie and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins were held to the outside of the scoring areas, as all but one of their five shots came from at least 30 feet away.
“I thought his wingers were quiet and that’s the next part of it: when he gets into his space let’s not get mesmerized and all chase him, let’s cover his outlets, make sure one guy’s angling,” Cassidy said of McDavid’s supporting cast, which accounted for just one assist and five shots on nine attempts. “I thought we did do a good job defensively against his group.”
And Cassidy, whose eight-year-old son is an avid McDavid fan, also discussed the pride that can come with shutting down one of the game’s top talents, and simply making life uncomfortable for them in a head-to-head with their team.
“I don’t like to see them buzzing around against us every night, but I think part of the allure of that is well how do you coach your guys to shut them down. Like I wonder tonight if Connor walks out of here saying, ‘boy that was tough,”’ Cassidy remarked. “That’s where you’re curious as a coach because you want to make it hard on the other team’s best players, and I think Zee has that mindset as a shut-down defenseman and Bergy as a forward. Every night you want to make it hard.”
Good news for McDavid: He has just one more game against the Bergeron-Chara combination this season.
Bad news: It’s next week.
Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. He has also been a voting member of the Boston Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association since 2013. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Ty? Follow him on Twitter @_TyAnderson.