BOSTON — His broken jaw protected by a newly affixed chin guard, Zdeno Chara stood tall on the blue line while TD Garden stopped for a thundering ovation as he was announced in the starting lineup.
Chara played because of course he did. Three days after taking a puck to the face, and with a cut on the right side of his mouth and who-knows-what going on inside, the Boston Bruins captain made a dramatic return to the Stanley Cup Final because he couldn’t bear to miss a game this big.
“Amazingly brave,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy told Scott Oake on the “Hockey Night in Canada” broadcast.
“I wouldn’t expect anything less from him,” said Brandon Carlo.
“It shows his character,” added goalie Tuukka Rask. “It takes a lot for him to not play. He’s got some big balls.”
It was an iconic playoff moment, even if Boston didn’t follow it up with a victory. This was a 42-year-old man fighting through pain and a doctor’s warning — giving every ounce he had to try and help push his team towards another championship.
We don’t yet have the full picture of what Chara had to do in order to play, but his presence in Game 5 wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Eating has likely been difficult, if not impossible, since he left a pool of blood on the ice in St. Louis and missed the final 37 minutes of Monday’s game.
He had 71 hours to receive treatment and get the clearance needed to pull on a helmet rigged-up with extra protection and jump back into the fray.
“His injury is a little more serious than some,” Cassidy said after Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the Blues. “He was medically cleared with some warnings. He made the decision to play. Inspirational for us, good player for us.
“We knew he wouldn’t be 100 per cent. So we’re happy to have him out there but it just speaks a lot to his character and his role to play.”
Cassidy dressed Steven Kampfer as the seventh defenceman and an insurance policy, but still gave Chara 25 shifts for 16:42. The big man delivered a hit on Brayden Schenn during the opening minute — one of four he was credited with on the night — and made good on a promise to play with no restrictions.
He wasn’t up to speaking with reporters due to his facial injuries, but took a couple questions through the Bruins public relations staff and said he wasn’t concerned about risking further damage to his jaw: “You don’t think about that. You think about playing. You don’t go into a game thinking you might get hurt.”
Still, there were some adjustments.
Chara scolded the Bruins bench during a television timeout earlier in this series, but couldn’t make himself heard to the same degree through a tightly contested Game 5.
“Not a whole lot,” said Rask.
“He was fine,” added Carlo. “Maybe not yelling as much on the ice, but on the bench he was fine.”
When the game turned on a missed penalty call right before David Perron’s 2-0 goal, it was still Chara who pled the Bruins case with referee Kelly Sutherland while angry fans pelted the ice with debris.
He and defence partner Charlie McAvoy also got crossed up on coverage before Ryan O’Reilly opened the scoring, but Chara was far from a liability overall. Under the circumstances, it was a notable performance.
“What he’s going through, that’s something I’ll tell my kids about when they wake up with a fever and don’t want to go to school,” said Bruins defenceman John Moore. “Those are life lessons that I’ll carry long beyond hockey, that I’m very grateful to have with Zee.”
The Bruins rolled out Bobby Orr and Derek Sanderson as their pre-game flag captains and left Chara at the end of the line for in-arena introductions that aren’t typically done in the middle of a series. They were trying to squeeze as much juice as possible out of his return and built a 13-3 shot advantage within 13 minutes.
Were it not for Jordan Binnington’s best game of this Stanley Cup Final, the script might have been written differently.
“I think it gave their team momentum in the first period, for sure, having him out there,” said Blues coach Craig Berube. “But our team hung in there and we pulled out a gutsy win. That’s the way I look at it. Our team was gutsy tonight. Our goalie was good and our team was gutsy.”
Talk about adding insult to injury.
The list of things that become more difficult with a broken jaw includes breathing, speaking, eating and drinking. We can safely assume it includes skating, bodychecking, passing and a bunch of other things that happened on the ice, too.
As if the mere act of playing in the NHL beyond your 42nd birthday weren’t already enough, Chara rewrote the potential recovery time for a broken jaw in the playoffs. Derek Stepan needed five days when he did it for the New York Rangers in 2014 and Chara took three.
That’s the same length of time he now has to get ready for Game 6 and, he hopes, a Game 7 after that.