Zdeno Chara as vital as ever in Bruins’ fight for playoff lives

Sean Kuraly's second goal of the game at 10:19 of the second overtime gave the Boston Bruins a 3-2 win over the Ottawa Senators in Game 5.

BOSTON — Six-foot-nine.

108.8 miles per hour.

175 centimetres.

Zdeno Chara has been defined by numbers his entire professional career. His height. His fastest recorded slap shot. The length of his stick, which is the longest the NHL allows. There’s always been a lot of interest around the towering Slovak who wears the ‘C’ for the Boston Bruins.

But recently, for the last month or so, there’s a new number Chara has been hearing a lot, and that’s 40.

Chara turned the big 4-0 last month, now in his 19th NHL season. He’s been playing in this league the same number of years his current defensive partner, Charlie McAvoy, has been breathing.

"All of a sudden for whatever reason there just becomes more attention to your age—maybe the focus is more on your number, or how old you are, more than your play," Chara said, ahead of Game 5. "I can’t really control that. I know you guys are always gonna be kinda relating to my age. That’s the way it is.

"I would rather people just keep looking at the performances and the way you play."

Friday, in an elimination game that saw his Bruins beat the Ottawa Senators in double overtime to live to see another day—that comes Sunday afternoon in Boston for Game 6—it was big No. 33 who logged the most ice time of any Bruins player, at 36 minutes and 46 seconds.

He may be the oldest guy in the locker room, but that’s what teammates have come to expect from their captain.

"It’s very calming to know someone can suck up that many minutes during a game, and play consistent, and very confident," said fellow pointman Joe Morrow. "You always have someone to look up to on the ice and someone to help you along as you go…That’s something we have that a lot of other teams can’t say that they do."

The way Chara plays has, of course, changed since he won the Norris Trophy in 2009, and since his career-best 52 points in 2011-12. Chara, who broke into the NHL as a teenager back in 1998 with the New York Islanders, isn’t putting up as many points in the latter stages of his career (he had 29 points this past regular season) but he remains a punishing physical presence, doling out big hits and giving the occasional face wash.

His 5.8 hits per game in the post-season ranks second only to Toronto’s Matt Martin.

Chara’s shot from the point is still deadly—six have hit the net in the playoffs, though none have found the back of it. And Chara’s reach continues to be his biggest asset.

"He can reach halfway across the rink," said Morrow. "I think that reach surprises people even that’ve played hundreds of games against him.

"He’s a very good skater for how big he is, and a very smart player. He’s definitely a special, special human being."

And Chara may be more important than ever to a team on the brink of elimination. He’s not only a steadying, veteran presence on the blue line, but Boston has seen injuries to so many defencemen—they’ve had eight different point men in this series so far, and Brandon Carlo and Torey Krug were out before the series even began—that coach Bruce Cassidy calls his lineup on the point a "puzzle."

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Adam McQuaid, among the defencemen injured earlier in this series, says Chara is a vocal presence when he needs to be, but not always during games. "He’s probably trying to catch his breath on the bench, he plays that much," McQuaid said, grinning.

Morrow will ask Chara questions from time to time during games, about positioning on a penalty kill, or on a defensive faceoff. "Double-check with the big guy," as he puts it.

Chara’s role as a leader has changed over the years, and he’s revelling in being a mentor to some of his less experienced teammates.

"He enjoys being around the young guys and being a bit of a tutor," said Cassidy. "He’s done it well with guys over the years from Dougie Hamilton to [Brandon] Carlo, and now a little bit with McAvoy, and then he’s got to focus on his game as well and then be the captain of 20 guys.

"He’s got a lot on his plate, but he does his job well every night. He’s a true pro, so we’ve asked a lot of him in that regard, but again I don’t think we’d ask him if he didn’t relish that responsibility."

Having kids, Chara says, has helped him with his teammates.

"You learn to be way more patient," he said. "You have to be in a way their mentor, a little bit of father, a little bit of captain, leader, and all that stuff, you have to mix it in."

Chara doesn’t use the term "rookie," opting instead to say "first-year player," because he didn’t like being called a rookie when he was one himself. "At some point I said, once I’m in that position, I wanna change it, and that’s what I try to do," he said. "I never want to make anyone feel less, or intimidated."

With one year remaining on his contract with the Bruins, Chara isn’t about to put a number on his age for retirement. "I just love the game. I love competing, I love coming to the rink," he said.

"You’re gonna have players that play for a long time, and they shouldn’t be judged differently just because of their age," Chara added. "I like to think it’s great that we still have a number of players close to 40 that are very effective in the league. I think it’s great for the game and for all the other players to see that it’s possible to play for a long time if you take care of yourself, and really handle it well, and be humble about it."

So, enough about his age already, OK?

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