ST. LOUIS – The return of Zdeno Chara to the Boston Bruins' lineup after breaking his jaw is one of those epic stories that will go down in hockey lore. It’s a testament to the legendary toughness of hockey players and their penchant for playing through any and all sorts of pain in exchange for a chance to win the Stanley Cup.
The question is, however, is it the best thing for the Boston Bruins at this point? Is everything they get from Chara in the form of an inspirational rallying point worth the risk of giving valuable minutes to a 42-year-old with a broken jaw who has the potential to be an on-ice liability?
Chara spoke publicly Saturday afternoon for the first time since taking a Brayden Schenn shot to the mouth in Game 4 of the final. He did so gingerly and without moving his jaw much, but he reported that he felt fine. “There are no limitations,” Chara said.
Well, his play in Game 5 suggested otherwise. Chara was held to just 16:42 of ice time in the game and struggled at times. On the Blues' first goal of the night, both he and defense partner Charlie McAvoy were caught behind the Bruins’ net. There are clearly limitations to his game and to suggest there are not would be disingenuous. What the Bruins have to figure out is how ensure those limitations don’t hurt them in their most important game of the season.
One of the wildcards here is defenseman Matt Grzelcyk, who has been out of the lineup since being concussed in Game 2. He practiced on Saturday with a non-contact sweater, so chances are he’s still out of the lineup for Game 6. But if he were to return to the lineup, the Bruins would be able to get back to their customary defense pairings with Torey Krug, Grzelcyk and Chara on the left side of the blueline and McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Conor Clifton on the right. First option John Moore shoots left, Steven Kampfer shoots right.
One thing is clear. The Bruins would never even contemplate keeping Chara out of the lineup under any circumstances if he’s able to perform. He’s the undisputed leader of the Bruins and, used sparingly and properly, he still has something to give. He’s still a top penalty killer for them and a big body who makes it difficult to get to the Bruins' net. It’s understandable, but he’s most definitely not at his best. And it creates a conundrum for the Bruins in that they have to weigh the risks and rewards of playing a less-than-100 percent Chara.
“He’s our leader,” said Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask. “He’s the toughest guy out there. He doesn’t take any games off unless it’s impossible to play. It’s an emotional lift for all of us and he’s the backbone of the defense, so it’s a great lift for us.”
Going into the series there were not many areas of the game where the Blues were considered to have a decided advantage, but defense was one of them. A healthy and effective Chara goes a long way toward closing that gap between the two teams, but the Grzelcyk and Chara injuries have seriously tested their depth at the position. Moore and Kampfer are both capable veterans, but they’re not about to move the needle in Boston’s favor. If Grzelcyk were able to play, his puck-moving ability would be an enormous boon to the Bruins, a much more tangible on-ice addition than the return of Chara.
If the Bruins are going to win and force a Game 7 on home ice, they’re going to need a lot more from a lot more people. The top line of Patrice Bergeron between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak simply has to find its game 5-on-5. The power play, which will see a new look with Marcus Johansson replacing Jake DeBrusk on the top unit, has gone from being the most dangerous in the NHL to barely being able to gain a decent zone entry in the past couple of games. Their team defense has to be better and they have to find a way to keep the Blues' big forwards from getting to their net.
Does Chara have any more to give his team? At his age and with an injury this serious, probably not. He’s giving everything he has. But it’s not enough. It’s clearly become time for the Bruins to lean less on their captain and for Chara’s teammates to pick up the slack.
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