By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — When the captain of the Boston Bruins hopped over the boards roughly eight minutes into the second period on Thursday night at the Garden, he didn’t know what to expect. In the sport of hockey, you never really can.
But, he was prepared. Because he always is. Because he is Zdeno Chara.
The shift started like any other, with Chara jumping into the offensive zone and chipping a puck in deep, just after two minutes of 4-on-4 play concluded. David Pastrnak chased down the puck in the corner but ended up hooking Brian Dumoulin.
So, the Bruins went on the penalty kill. It was an area — along with the power play — that head coach Bruce Cassidy said Thursday morning needed improvement. The effort has been there, Cassidy said, but the Bruins struggled to fully execute. And to that point in the game, the Bruins’ PK was 2-for-2.
Chara wanted to make sure it ended up 3-for-3, so he prepared himself the way he typically does. He took a deep breath and then declared ownership on the real estate in front of the Boston net.
After Sean Kuraly won a faceoff, Kevan Miller cleared the puck. Kuraly and Riley Nash ended up generating some short-handed possession in the Pittsburgh end, forcing Tristan Jarry to freeze the puck and prompt a defensive zone draw for the Penguins. Tommy Wingels won the resulting draw, and Chara skated the puck back into the neutral zone before dumping it deep into the Pittsburgh end.
With 40 seconds gone in the power play, the Penguins finally entered the zone with possession. That’s when Chara really got to work.
He harassed Sidney Crosby behind the net, winning a battle and floating the puck out to the neutral zone. The Penguins quickly re-entered. Chara laid the body on Patric Hornqvist — a man who had drawn Chara’s ire earlier for a borderline hit on rookie Charlie McAvoy — against the corner boards. After a scramble in front of the net, Chara shoved Hornqvist, who was trying to establish position in front of the net. Hornqvist went down to the ice in a heap. He got to his feet, looked to the referee for help, recognized he wasn’t getting any, and then went back to Chara.
With Phil Kessel holding the puck on the half wall, Chara caught a glimpse of Hornqvist out of the corner of the eye. He again sent Hornqvist down to the ice before stepping out to block a shooting lane for Evgeni Malkin. And after Malkin passed? Well, Chara skated back to Hornqvist and promptly shoved him off his spot.
The Penguins cycled the puck, looking to create something — anything — but they could not. Chara — along with Miller, Wingels and Brad Marchand — suffocated any chance of a Pittsburgh score to bleed the penalty dry. But their work was not done, as Pittsburgh maintained possession after the penalty to Pastrnak expired. Even after the puck was cleared following a Kessel one-time bid and Pittsburgh was able to change out all five men on the ice, Chara remained.
Tuukka Rask mishandled a puck behind his own net, allowing a golden chance for Carl Hagelin. But Rask made a remarkable and very fortunate stick save, and then Chara swept the puck out of the crease to avoid further opportunities from in close.
At that point, the puck squeaked out to the half wall, where Tim Schaller kept it pinned against the boards. In the midst of the battle, Chara began exchanging shoves with Jamie Oleksiak.
The two separated themselves from the pack and stared each other down. Even though Chara was three full minutes deep into a monster shift, he decided he’d drop the gloves.
Chara, as you know, is 6-foot-9. Throughout his career as the tallest player in NHL history, it’s been rare when he’s been matched up with someone who might be considered a fair match. But Oleksiak is just two inches shorter than Chara, and he’s got five pounds on him. Oleksiak also has youth on his side, as he’s 15 years younger than the Bruins captain. Oleksiak had also only been on the ice for about 15 seconds before the fight.
If ever Chara was going to lose a fight, it would presumably this one, at the end of a three-minute shift, against a monster of a man.
Yet during the fight — which lasted nearly 30 seconds — Chara was the one swinging. Chara was the one trying to rip off his challenger’s helmet. Chara was the one working in an uppercut. Chara was the one controlling every aspect of the bout. And Chara was the one who managed to ensure that his opponent did not land a single punch.
The early votes on HockeyFights.com have Chara as the 62 percent winner. (A draw earned 31 percent of the votes, with just 6 percent of voters picking Oleksiak as the winner. Perhaps those voters awarded him for simply trying.)
It was an impressive show of power and endurance by itself. But when you consider that it came at the end of a three-minute grinder of a shift, it speaks to the remarkable level of conditioning that the soon-to-be-41-year-old Chara manages to maintain.
Here’s a look at the second half of the shift, and the fight itself.
By the end of it, Chara looked almost slightly winded. Almost.
After the game — an 8-4 pummeling of a win against the defending Stanley Cup champions — Chara was, as you might imagine, downplaying his work.
“It was tiring,” he said nonchalantly. “But I thought it was that time of the game that it was obviously important for us not to back down or show weakness. I thought it was the right timing for us to play that way. These things happen.”
“These things happen.” But they really don’t. It’s just not often that a defenseman can play at such a high level when he’s two weeks shy of his 41st birthday. Add in the ridiculous number of miles logged skating against the best players in the NHL, and factor in how much more work is necessary to maintain a healthy body when you’re nearly 7 feet tall, and there’s really no way to overstate how otherworldly Chara is at this moment and has been for a very long time.
He’s talked recently about his decision to change his diet, and how he plans to continue playing in the NHL “for many more years.” He sounds not all that dissimilar to another team captain in the area, and his performance on the ice is equally astounding. It’s enough to make you believe he can play for as long as he wants.
Interestingly enough, because of that five-minute break in the penalty box, Chara finished with just 19:18 of ice time — his third-lowest total of the season. But he managed to make his impact felt, registering two assists, one of which was the primary helper on Pastrnak’s goal late in the second period. He helped keep Crosby off the scoresheet.
And by manhandling Hornqvist, grinding out a three-minute shift, limiting the NHL’s No. 1 power play unit, and then dropping his gloves with a rare pugilist who can nearly match him in size? Chara did something he doesn’t ever have to do but still manages to accomplish on a regular basis. He proved that he is the ultimate athlete.
It was just one shift — one of 23 on the night — but it was perfectly indicative of everything Zdeno Chara is about.
Cassidy was able to cast a bit more appreciation on what his captain did.
“Unbelievable. That is unbelievable, the physical conditioning that guy is in,” Cassidy said. “He has played a lot up to that point, too — it’s not like he’s been sitting around for half the game. Zee, he has got some energy. Good for him. I think he wanted to talk to Hornqvist, too, on that hit on Charlie, as well. Zee had some passion.”
Sensing he had stated the obvious, Cassidy quickly corrected himself.
“Well, he always does,” Cassidy said. “But he had a little more tonight.”