BOSTON (CBS) – Is Zdeno Chara a man, or is he a machine?
That’s what some Boston Bruins fans are wondering after the defenseman logged his second straight game of 35+ minutes on Thursday night, playing 38:02 in Boston’s 4-3 overtime win over the New York Rangers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Chara has played nearly four hours of hockey in Boston’s first eight playoff games this season, and has gone over the 30 minute mark each of the three times Boston has needed extra hockey to pull out a win.
These aren’t easy minutes, either. Chara is nearly always out there against the oppositions best offensive player; from Toronto’s Phil Kessel (who scored four goals last series) to New York’s Rick Nash.
More times than not, it’s Chara who gets the best of these matchups.
That was once again the case on Thursday night. Chara did everything the Bruins needed him to do, and then some. He scored the team’s first goal, and assisted on the game-winner in overtime when he poked a Derick Brassard pass away on a New York odd-man rush. He fought for pucks along the boards, and delivered his fair share of hard hits – finishing with six for the game. He also led the Bruins with nine shots on goal, and leads the team this postseason with 34.
While fans sit back in awe, his Bruins teammates have seen it all before.
So 38 minutes of hard-fought, hard-hitting playoff hockey isn’t really all that surprising to some of them.
“No, not really. I know what he can do,” Bruins forward David Krejci said of Chara on Friday. “He’s the best defenseman out there. Maybe he doesn’t have the offensive skills as (Erik) Karlsson and a few other guys out there, but overall he’s been amazing for us. Not just in the playoffs but the last few years. I don’t think there’s anything he can do to surprise me.”
“For him, the way he’s conditioned and the way he prepares, he’s learned to be able to deal with those kind of minutes,” said Gregory Campbell. “But it’s a certain breed of player to handle that kind of situation and that pressure, and he does it successfully.”
“He’s a pretty special player. I don’t think you can really appreciate him until you play with him, and you see his work ethic on and off the ice; the way he carries himself and the leadership he has,” added Campbell.
Chara doesn’t care how many minutes he plays, just as long as his team can put up a “W” when the final horn sounds.
“I’m just trying to help the team as much as I can and whatever coach feel comfortable putting out there, I’m fine with that,” he said following the game Thursday night.
Chara stays in shape with a ridiculous workout regime, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s always on his bicycle. He rides to the TD Garden (when the weather permits, of course) and then rides stages of the Tour De France in the off-season – just for fun.
But that’s just the physical side of things. Mentally, the 6-9 behemoth wears that “C” on his sweater for a reason.
His leadership was in even bigger focus on Thursday night, as Claude Julien was forced to use three rookie defenseman with injuries sidelining veterans Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference and Wade Redden. In their place, Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krugg and Matt Bartkowski stepped up, and made the most of that opportunity. They didn’t look like rookies seeing their first real playoff action (Hamilton did see some action in three games against the Leafs), but showed poise and a coolness many didn’t expect.
A lot of that had to do with Chara.
“I think everyone can see how good he is and how hard he works,” said Hamilton. “I keep calling him a machine because of how good he is on the ice for the minutes he plays. You can see just being in the room and at practice how hard he works. He’s definitely a role model for me and the leader of our team.”
“Thinking about him playing 38 minutes made me kind of sick for a second, like ‘holy crap, how did he do that?’” said Bartkowski. “Not only just playing but he’s out there playing his game and playing strong.”
“It’s playing against their best player and adding offense too. It’s pretty impressive,” the 24-year-old added.
Julien isn’t too worried about the minutes piling up for his captain, because really, he doesn’t have a choice at this point.
“Well, he’s done it twice in a row now,” the coach said Friday. “He’s in great shape, he’s got a couple of days here to recover, so I don’t see that being an issue. To be honest with you, right now we don’t have a choice. You deal with it the best way you can.”
Chara is 36-years-old but still playing like he’s in his late-20’s. These youngsters don’t know how he does it, but are keeping a watchful eye on their leader.
“I don’t know if he plugs himself in at night; I don’t know,” joked Hamilton. “It’s pretty incredible to be able to do that. It’s a huge credit to him and just being able to watch it, we’re amazed by it and it makes it easier on our whole team.”
“I don’t know if I could keep up with some of the stuff I heard he does. Really, it’s just incredible,” said Bartkowski. “He might have just not even slept and rode through the night (Thursday night) for all we know.”
Whether it be his physical play or mental leadership, the Bruins’ success this postseason relies on Chara. He didn’t have the best regular season, but has taken his game to another level for the playoffs.
And with two days to charge the batteries between Games 1 and 2, there is no telling how powerful “the machine” will be on Sunday.
Follow Matthew Geagan on Twitter @MattyGWBZ