By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — There were plenty of gritty performances by the Bruins to go around Thursday night.
Riley Nash scored a dirty goal on his third shot attempt from near the blue paint on one second-period shift. Sean Kuraly scored the game-winning goal while crashing into the right post. Jordan Szwarz and Austin Czarnik joined the lineup as reinforcements for the injury-depleted lineup and played with their nose to the ice surface.
But when it came time to secure a 2-1 win against the Vegas Golden Knights at TD Garden, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy turned to his most reliable and grittiest performer, the ultimate Iron Man Bruin, captain Zdeno Chara.
The Bruins were protecting their lead when defenseman Charlie McAvoy went to the penalty box for holding with 4:39 remaining. From the time the box closed until the final horn, Chara was on the ice for all but 49 seconds.
It was a closing performance that would’ve made Craig Kimbrel jealous.
“I have a really good will,” Chara told CBS Boston after the game, still trying to rest his legs and catch his breath after his marathon performance. “That’s what I train for, that’s my job and those are the moments when I know I have to dig deep and just push through and avoid the pain and just go through it. That’s just the way it is sometimes.”
It’s become a regular occurrence for Chara to battle for the entirety of Boston’s two-minute penalty kills early this season. That’s a strategy usually reserved for crucial late-season games and the playoffs in past seasons. But with a young, inexperienced team and a need to accumulate as many points as possible, Cassidy hasn’t been shy about using his best defensive weapon. And with the Bruins looking to end their two-game losing skid and trying to earn a season-series split with the expansionists on Thursday, Cassidy and Chara agreed the Bruins’ best bet was letting the 6-foot-9 destroyer do what he does best for basically the final five minutes.
There weren’t any words exchanged between the coach and player. Both agreed that there’s just a signal or a feeling between the two when they know it’s time to drop the hammer and let Chara put all his years of tireless strength and conditioning training do what few humans could do.
“Tonight he decided he was going to protect the lead,” Cassidy said. “We talked about it, sometimes his minutes are going to get up there. So we said ‘go ahead.”
It helped that the Bruins had been shorthanded just twice previously, so Chara finished with a hearty 25:17 in ice time. A television timeout just before the start of the McAvoy penalty and eight whistles allowed Chara to exercise his recovery regimen. But for a little more than 43 seconds of that final 4:39, the Golden Knights had a 6-on-5 with their goalie out, and they had their share of pressure on the Bruins in the closing minute. Watching Chara keep the Vegas’ skaters from breaking into the attacking zone clean and pushing their shot attempts out to the perimeter of the zone, it looked like Chara was fighting off Father Time as much as he was warding off the Golden Knights.
The 40-year-old, who doesn’t play like any 40-year-old we’ve seen around this rink, knows the tricks of the trade to make sure his decision to be the closer doesn’t turn into a gaffe.
“Yeah, there are. You have to breath a certain way, you have to think a certain way, and you have to make up your mind that you know you’re going to be in that locked-in zone and you have to avoid that and push through it and I’m able to do that,” Chara said. “I know I have a good will and when I make up my mind, it doesn’t matter, I just go through it.
“But I mean it’s also fun,” he continued. “It hurts, you come off and it’s something that after the game you feel it, but at the same time I enjoy it because I know I did my job. I dig deep and I left everything out there and we got two points. So that’s rewarding for me and for us and it’s great.”
Four rookies, a couple second-year players, a guy who was on an AHL contract last season were all the lineup and they had to be impressed. Heck, even the Bruins’ most grizzled veterans had to be inspired by Chara’s effort in eviscerating Vegas’ comeback hopes. And if you think Chara’s bluffing when he describes his effort as “fun,” one teammate saw evidence that Chara took extreme pleasure in pushing himself to the limit.
“It kind of shows that he loves to be out there in that situation. He obviously has that trust to be out there in that situation for that long. His favorite thing is going out there and finishing the game off,” defenseman Brandon Carlo said. “You can tell just by the way he smiles after the game, after accomplishing that task, how much he loves it.”
With the lineup they’re forced to use because of injuries, the Bruins have no choice but to grind out the points in the standings at the moment. The attitude and work ethic necessary flows from the top, from the captain, the future Hall of Famer, and if the Bruins continue to follow Chara’s lead there will be more smiles by everybody around the Bruins.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.