BOSTON — The morning after Derek Stepan’s jaw was fractured into pieces late in the 2014 playoffs, the oral surgeon was optimistic he’d be able to get him back on the ice in time to resume his pursuit of the Stanley Cup.
But it was no slam dunk, not even when the surgery started.
"I went in believing I was going to play more games that year, but I had the potential of waking up with my mouth wired shut and being done," Stepan said Tuesday from his off-season home in Minnesota.
"He was able to get in there and put a plate in and obviously, I was on a soft diet. I would probably say in most cases he’d want to get it just wired shut, but obviously, it was a little bit unique and he was able to piece it together without having to do that.
"Went from there."
It’s the same no-man’s land of recovery where Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara finds himself today, having suffered what is believed to be a broken jaw when a puck rode up his stick and struck him on the right side of the face during Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Chara met with doctors upon the team’s return to Boston on Tuesday, but the exact nature of his injury remains unknown. We may not find out until after this series is over. However, you can be sure that he and the medical staff are doing everything possible to try and get him ready for Thursday’s Game 5, or at worst Sunday’s Game 6.
Stepan’s broken jaw cost him one game in the 2014 Eastern Conference Final and included a four-day layoff. The biggest challenge he faced after surgery was getting enough fuel into his body to withstand the rigours of playoff hockey.
"If you are eating anything, it’s very small pieces of chicken grinded up to nothing," said Stepan. "It takes a long time to eat. You’re not able to get as much in as you’d like, and the energy levels [suffer].
"You’re just playing so much, you’re practising every day, so the difficult thing is getting food into your system and there’s not a whole lot of options for you because you’re not really chewing anything."
Still, the then-New York Rangers centre was able to grind through the final seven games of the season after missing one following a late, high check from Montreal Canadiens forward Brandon Prust in the East Final.
Chara sat out the final 37 minutes of Monday’s game in St. Louis after leaving a trail of blood on the ice when Brayden Schenn’s shot struck him. He watched the third period from the Bruins’ bench wearing a full face shield and teammates believe he would have tried to play had doctors not prevented it from happening.
"He’s an absolute warrior," said Brad Marchand.
On Tuesday, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy mused about the possibility of forging on without Chara in a 2-2 series with the Blues. That might force him to dress seven defencemen — Steven Kampfer and Urho Vaakanainen are the most likely candidates, assuming Matt Grzlecyk isn’t ready to return from a concussion — which would represent an anxiety-inducing downgrade at a critical moment.
"You just hate to lose a key player, your captain, one of your leaders," said Cassidy. "You lose some intangibles, as well."
Of course, it’s going to have to take something significant to keep the 42-year-old Chara from stepping away from the chance to burnish his legacy with another Cup.
You can count Stepan and former NHLer Jeremy Roenick, who twice broke his jaw during his playing days, among those who wouldn’t be surprised to see him gut it out.
Roenick missed 20 days with a broken jaw in 1999 after taking a vicious hit from Derian Hatcher and believes Chara’s biggest obstacle will be controlling his breathing if he plays with that injury.
"Especially, if they have to put a bunch of wires in there," he said.
Stepan’s return was made a little more comfortable because he was outfitted with a modified helmet that looked more like something a football player might wear. It included a visor to protect his eyes and a separate padded protector that hung loosely around his jawline.
"They said as long as you don’t take another blunt injury directly to the jaw, it’s not going to be too big of an issue," said Stepan. "There wasn’t too much pain for me, for the most part. I had that protective makeshift helmet — not the ones with the full jaw because they didn’t want that cage to come in and push my jaw in. They kind of made one up.
"They just didn’t want me to get hit again."
Stepan scored twice in his return from the injury at Bell Centre and skated in his usual spot on the top line against Los Angeles throughout the Stanley Cup, logging more than 31 minutes the night the Kings won the series in double overtime.
When it was all over, Stepan weighed in at 165 pounds during the Rangers end-of-season medical testing — about 20 pounds less than he typically plays at.
"It was that time of the year, you just find a way to get it done," said Stepan. "You put your skates on and you do everything you can to help.
"I think [Chara] will be just fine. He’s a pretty tough dude. He’s a lot tougher than me, so if I can do it, he’ll probably do it with ease."