- Scott Burnside, NHL
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BOSTON -- The Stanley Cup playoffs are an exercise in building up and tearing down.
As the field narrows, the process becomes even more exaggerated.
As the games dwindle toward naming a champion, the heroes take on even greater stature and become almost mythical.
The tearing down of those who do not meet expectations, cannot assume the heroic, is relentlessly emphatic.
And so, two games into the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, we ask this question of Boston captain Zdeno Chara: mountain or rubble?
With the Bruins trailing 2-0 in their first Stanley Cup finals appearance since 1990, they face arguably the franchise's most important game since they last won a Cup in 1972.
Lose in Monday night's Game 3 and go down 3-0 against the Vancouver Canucks, and the series is over. Win, and the series script takes on a completely different tone.
This is not to suggest that Chara, the man who filled the Bruins' captaincy when he signed as a free agent prior to the 2006-07 season, is required to take the entire Bruins squad on his mighty Slovak shoulders and single-handedly deliver victory. But surely it isn't asking too much of the 6-foot-9 defenseman to lead by example, set a tone through his play and demeanor and inspire the rest of the Bruins.
He has the wherewithal and skill set to be that kind of player.
He won the Norris Trophy in 2009 as the NHL's best defenseman. The Bruins have also paid him handsomely to be a difference-maker (he signed a seven-year, $45.5 million extension with the team back in October).
Yet, in Game 2, he played what might have been his worst playoff game of the spring, repeatedly turning over the puck, making poor decisions, seemingly unsure of his game. He was in the penalty box when the Canucks scored the first goal of the game and was on the ice for the final two goals, including the overtime score by Alex Burrows just 11 seconds into extra time that gave Vancouver a 3-2 win.
This series has brought into sharp focus the well-worn cliché about the fine line between success and failure in the playoffs -- two one-goal games and a series of pivotal plays on either side contributing to the storyline of the series. Chara's uncharacteristically poor play in Game 2 was a significant factor in the outcome of a game the Bruins desperately needed and let slip from their grasp.
Although quiet and reluctant to discuss his play in the moments after Game 2, Chara seemed significantly more upbeat Sunday afternoon after the Bruins had arrived home.
"Well, I think we all have to get ready," Chara said. "We know it's going to be very exciting, so I don't think we have to do any motivational speeches at this point. We know what's at stake [in a] Stanley Cup final, so it's very exciting."
These are the moments in a Cup finals series that define players.
Think of Nicklas Lidstrom and his play in, well, any of the finals which he has played in Detroit; think of how his game seemed to grow with the importance of the situation. Think of Chicago's Duncan Keith, last season's Norris Trophy winner, and his inspired play in the latter stages of the 2010 playoffs after a sluggish start to the tournament.
This spring, the Bruins have bested a pesky Montreal team, swept aside Philadelphia and then emerged from a seven-game, seesaw battle with Tampa Bay, and Chara has been, for the most part, rock solid.
He is averaging 28:17 a night in ice time, third among all NHL players this spring and first among those whose teams advanced beyond the second round. He has also logged more ice time than any skater through the first two games of the Cup finals. Yet, how Chara responds in Game 3 (and with him the rest of the Bruins) will say much about how he is perceived in Boston and throughout the hockey world.
In short, the question is: Will Chara prove to be the leader this long-suffering franchise has sought since the glory days of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito?
After all, when your Stanley Cup drought approaches the four-decade mark, it's fair to suggest there has been a leadership vacuum for long periods. How many years did people debate Joe Thornton's ability to be "the man" for the Bruins? The former No. 1 overall draft pick could never quite get his squad over the playoff hump and Hall of Fame Boston Globe columnist Kevin Paul Dupont suggested after the Bruins blew a 3-1 series lead against Montreal in the 2004 playoffs that Thornton wasn't the right choice for captain of the team. Ultimately ownership and management agreed and sent Thornton packing to San Jose on Nov. 30, 2005.
The next summer, the Ottawa Senators, seeing their own championship window about to close thanks to the salary cap, had to make a choice between two blue-chip defensemen, Chara and Wade Redden. The Sens opted to keep Redden and went to the Stanley Cup finals in 2007. The Bruins, meanwhile, immediately snapped up Chara in the summer of 2006 and just as quickly named him captain.
After missing the playoffs in his first season in Boston, Chara and the Bruins have now been to the postseason four straight years, with expectations never as high as they have been during this spring's run.
Does Chara feel an additional burden as the team's captain to deliver more, to change the course of this series?
"No, I think I, as every one of us, we have to do what we do best and not try to do too much or going out of our way," he said. "Do what you do, do it right, and when we all do our jobs, I'm sure we're going to be fine."
Along with defense partner Dennis Seidenberg, Chara has logged long, hard minutes this spring playing against the opposing team's best players, and you will search long and hard in the Bruins' dressing room to find anyone willing to offer even the remotest criticism of the captain.
"I don't think anybody in that room thought he was off last night," Seidenberg told a small group of reporters Sunday. "Obviously, he's huge out there. He's so dominant in our zone and all over the ice. Nobody wants to go in the corner with him. Everybody has a ton for respect. Even some guys are scared to go in the corner with him.
"So it definitely helps for the guy who's playing with him and it's a lot of fun," he added. "He logs a lot of minutes, and to be part of that pairing has been a lot of fun and it's been a good ride so far."
If fatigue is an issue, Chara isn't acknowledging it.
"It's not like you all of a sudden jump from, let's say, the 20-minute mark or 20 minutes a game to 30 minutes a game," Chara said.
Chara said he's been logging those kinds of minutes for years. "You just have to pick spots; you don't get stuck out there for too long or you don't waste the energy in places you shouldn't be," he said.
Regardless, don't look for Boston coach Claude Julien to be cutting back on Chara's exposure, even if the defenseman did go off the rails a bit in Game 2.
"Where we are right now, you have to look at it this way -- you've got all summer long to rest," Julien said. "Now's not the time to start giving him a rest. We're in a fight here for a Stanley Cup and he's capable of taking it. We feel he is. If he wasn't, we wouldn't be giving it to him, so I don't see an issue there, either."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Will Zdeno Chara prove to be the leader the Bruins have sought since the glory days of Bobby Orr? How he responds in Game 3 will say much about how he is perceived in Boston and the hockey world.