No sport tends to glorify its captains more than hockey. You can easily see them with the “C” on their uniforms. These guys are a special bunch. They are expected to lead their teams on the ice and bolster it off it. The title is not bestowed haphazardly.
On Thursday at TD Garden in Boston, the Bruins are going to need all the help they can get to quell the emotion the St. Louis Blues are surfing in the Stanley Cup finals.
After losing Game 4 in St. Louis to even the series at 2-2, the Bruins can regain control with a win in Game 5. But that effort will likely take place without the help of their captain, Zdeno Chara.
Chara is this team’s Prudential Center. He is 6-foot-9 without his skates and he stands above the horizon for the Bruins in many reasons. But his jaw was broken by an errant puck off the stick of the Blues Brayden Schenn early in the second period of Game 4, the flying rubber biscuit crushing it like a hazelnut in a vice.
Remnants of his blood were splattered on the ice and when he finally rejoined his teammates for the third period it was only with protection of a face guard. When the camera focused on Chara’s face, you could see the damage, the stitches, the dried blood below the lip line. He looked like he must have felt.
As it turned out, Chara’s appearance was only ceremonial. He did not play in the period. He just sat there hoping his presence might help his team. During a timeout late in the third period, the Bruins scrambling to tie the game, he skated in front of his bench to encourage his teammates. It did not work. The Bruins lost 4-2.
The question is now whether Chara will be able to play for the remainder of the series. He did not practice with the team Wednesday and the Bruins were particularly close-mouthed about his prospects.
NHL teams are not required to provide specifics about injuries. Usually, they refer to them in just the basic way, calling them upper or lower body injuries. When asked about Chara, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy offered the understated “facial injury” for elaboration.
Chara’s loss would be enormous, both physically and emotionally. He is a powerful, imposing figure in the corners. He is one of their top penalty-killers. He is a 21-year veteran who has been with the Bruins since the 2006-7 season. The fans and his teammates love him.
Without him, the Bruins will be seriously shorthanded, unless Matt Grzelcyk is somehow recovered from the concussion he received on a Game 2 hit from Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist that resulted in his one-game suspension. Grzelcyk was on the ice Wednesday, but only to glide around. He was not involved in any contact drills.
“When he gets cleared, he’ll be ready to go,” Cassidy said. “Whether that’s tomorrow or not, I couldn’t tell you.”
The current state of the Bruins defensive corps was exposed when rookie defenseman Urho Vaakanainen showed up on the ice. He only appeared in two regular-season games with the team.
“That would be a big ask,” Cassidy said. “A real big ask.”
Veteran defenseman Steven Kampfer didn’t seem particularly worried about it.
“It kind of helped knowing we had a couple of days here to get ready for it,” Kampfer said. ““Nobody really knows who’s in, who’s out [Thursday]. You’re mentally ready for any situation to happen. I’ve had it before guys – have gotten sick in the afternoon and you’re jumping in and playing a game that you didn’t think you were playing in at 3:30 p.m. It’s just making sure you’re mentally with it all the time.”
Chara, 42, who has played in over 1,600 NHL games, has a goal and four assists with a plus-12 in 20 playoff games this spring. He usually is paired with Charlie McAvoy. He played over 24 minutes in Games 2 and 3.
“Things you can’t control, it’s important not to let them distract you,” Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron said. “When players are missing, it’s up to the others to raise their game. We will see who will be with us tomorrow and who will not be there. Still, for us, the recipe does not change. Our wins are team wins. This is what we’re gonna have to do to be successful.
“So yeah I think we’re sending him positive vibes and we’re supporting him. And of course when you lose your captain, you try to step up and be good for him. And it’s the same thing right now, we’re all behind each other and all supportive of each other and that’s why we’re here.”
If you don’t think Chara means a lot to the Bruins, you haven’t had the chance to ask Cassidy about it.
“I think our guys are good that way knowing that the team will pull together,” said Cassidy. “It’s just tough when you lose your captain. He is your captain and he plays some valuable minutes in this particular series. Against a heavier team, that’s where you miss the actual what he brings to the table.
“But in terms of the mentality, I think this team will be OK. And we don’t know Zee if he misses one game, if he wouldn’t be available for the next one if that’s the case, either. We don’t really know right now. There’s a little bit of that hope factor for us as well.”