ST. LOUIS – This is why the champagne tastes so sweet.
Because the pain is so excruciating.
Zdeno Chara — the tallest, oldest, kindest and arguably toughest hockey player standing — raced off the Enterprise Center ice three minutes into the second period, a trail of his own blood spattered behind him.
An accidental crime scene in a 2-2 series that has already seen its share and has at least 120 minutes of potential carnage to come.
As Chara defended the rush in a tight, visceral fourth chapter of this beautifully ugly Stanley Cup Final, St. Louis Blues centre Brayden Schenn snapped a puck that clicked off the longest stick in the league and smashed into the Boston Bruins’ defenceman’s face, opening a gash and, they fear, causing structural damage.
So, when the big man finally did return to the bench for the third period, he remained there. Sitting. Watching. Supporting in the only manner he was medically cleared to do.
Chara had been outfitted with the badges of the wounded: fresh stitches, a full visor and a decisive "done for the night" declaration by the trainers. Then he asked if he could at least sit with the guys. They lost 4-2.
"His mouth has some blood, and I don’t know what else is going on in there, but he can barely talk, and he’s out there supporting us," explained fellow defenceman Brandon Carlo.
"Just his leadership is on another level."
This is the same captain who wasn’t healthy enough to participate in the Eastern Conference final clincher in Carolina but had insisted on throwing on a shoulder pads and sweater so he could at least participate in the handshake line.
It's all about respect.
— #StanleyCup on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) May 17, 2019
This is the same captain who recruited some guy named Tom Brady to narrate the Bruins’ championship hype video ahead of Game 1.
The same captain who recently delivered an impassioned and oft-shared monologue about how he’s not a fan of the term "rookie," how he wants everyone with a stall in the Boston room to be treated as an equal.
"That must be a new thing. He called me a rookie then," cracked Brad Marchand before the series shifted to St. Louis. "Just kidding."
Marchand tried to explain a man he’s now known since 2009, when he was also not a rookie.
"He’s always a guy who treats everyone with respect. He was brought up very well. If you ever talk to him off the ice, he’s extremely well mannered, very respectful to everybody. He treats everyone the same way," Marchand said.
"Sometimes you expect guys with that big of a presence and how famous he is to be a little arrogant, but that’s not him at all. He’s extremely humble and very thankful for everything he has, and he’s worked extremely hard for it.
"He’s an incredible leader in that sense. He makes it very easy to learn from and feel welcome and feel part of the group. I think it’s why our young guys are comfortable being the loudest guys in the room. We need that. It’s energy we feed off, and it makes things exciting in the group. He does a great job setting the example."
Chara’s latest battle wounds, which will be further evaluated as the Final seesaws back to Boston, are also an example of just how taxing this tournament can be.
The night one critical combatant, St. Louis’s Vince Dunn, returns from a significant mouth injury, another leaves with one. (Dunn, splendid in his Cup debut, took a stick to his wired-up mouth during his second shift: "Nothing’s going right for my face right now.")
In each Bruins loss, they lost a key defenceman early and were forced to juggle five defenders, giving the play-the-body Blues a distinct advantage.
"It sucks. It’s not easy. Tough night for him," said goalie Tuukka Rask, not surprised to see Chara back on the bench.
"It’s not easy when there’s five guys and they have to play against a heavy forechecking team. It puts a lot of pressure on them. Our guys have done a tremendous job handling that. I just hope it doesn’t happen every game."
Matt Grzelcyk was rammed face-first into the glass in Game 2 and was so damaged, it wasn’t worth flying him to St. Louis.
Coach Bruce Cassidy is unsure if either Chara or Grzelcyk will dress in Thursday’s Game 5. Journeyman Steven Kampfer, 30, could be next man up.
"So, we gotta make the adjustments," the coach said, noting the Blues’ loss of Robert Thomas in what is rapidly morphing into a classic, old-school war of attrition.
Expecting the chatter over the two off-days to circle around defensive depth, Cassidy interestingly challenged the men up front, who lost the possession tussle decisively at even strength, generating just 38 per cent of the Game 4’s shot attempts.
"Personally, I think our forwards have to do a way better job with our D out. The onus has to go on them. They have to pull their weight in terms of puck supported and helping out the D, finishing some plays," Cassidy charged. "We had some lines tonight with very few shots attempts.
"They’re going to have to pull their weight, especially if these guys are out. That’s just the way it is. That’s the hand we’re dealt."
If Patrice Bergeron is the Bruins’ conscience, Rask the backbone, and Marchand the id, Chara is the team’s heartbeat.
Can they win it for him? Can they win it without him?
"He wants to battle and be with the guys. He wasn’t gonna miss that opportunity. He doesn’t get back on the ice, but he’s a warrior. If there’s any chance for him to be back, he’ll be back," David Backes promised.
"Whoever our next guy up is will have to fill that role admirably—and they’re big feet to fill."