CHICAGO — Near the podiums on NHL media day Tuesday hung a picture, a larger-than-life Zdeno Chara, his mouth open in a scream of ecstasy, the Stanley Cup held over his head. A few yards away was the real Chara, serious, businesslike, as he answered questions from a horde of reporters that wanted to know how he has remained so good after playing so many minutes game after game after game.
The Bruins captain’s ice time peaked in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, a double-overtime win over the Penguins that required 42 minutes 5 seconds of his sweat. That was nearly five minutes longer than he played in any game during the Bruins’ previous Cup run, when Chara was two years younger and the Bruins hadn’t hoisted the Cup in 39 years.
“Learned that you can’t slow him down,” coach Claude Julien said of managing Chara’s ice time. “He’s in great shape. The more you give him, the more he likes it. He takes good care of himself between games and recovers extremely well.
“When you’re that size, when you’re that well-conditioned, and that strong, it’s really hard to slow him down. He’s been a real horse for us.”
In the Bruins’ Cup run in 2011, Chara played at least 30 minutes three times in 24 games, logging a high of 37:06 in a first-round game against Montreal. This postseason, Chara has shouldered even more of the load, exceeding 30 minutes five times already.
“We were pretty smart about it,” Chara said. “When there is time to recuperate and get some rest, you have to do it. Other times, there are games that go to overtime, to double overtime, like we had, and that’s when you have to play more.
“I’ve always been saying I’m always comfortable with whatever the coach decides to use me, and how he approaches different matchups. I think that we’ve been really good so far making it a little easier with the way we play, the way we make changes and match up. But I’m just trying to help as much as I can.”
Even to the point of making an incredible hand save in the final minute of Game 4 against the Penguins, as he neared his 26th minute on the ice.
“He’s always been a Norris Trophy winner for us,” Julien said of the non-Norris finalist. “You have no idea what this guy does for a hockey club, and the few times he’s been out of our lineup, we’ve seen a difference. That’s the impact that he has on our hockey club.”
And after a series in which the Bruins shut down the NHL’s best offense, Chara’s skills will be needed against a Blackhawks offense that is nearly as explosive as Pittsburgh’s.
“He’s been tremendous,” fellow defenseman Dennis Seidenberg said. “He’s played his best hockey in the postseason this year. He’s contributed on both ends of the ice, and has been really strong. There’s no flaws, I think, in his game right now.”
Chara’s game has been pretty close to perfect this postseason despite the heavy workload.
This round Chara will be playing against fellow Slovak Marian Hossa, his longtime friend and neighbor, and a man who might just have the secret to cracking the generally stone-faced Chara.
“I try to joke with him because he likes to be serious all the time on the ice,” Hossa said. “I know he doesn’t like to talk on the ice. I try to throw some funny stories on the faceoff, making him laugh a little bit.”
Chara wasn’t having it.
“I don’t think I’m going to be looking for any jokes from him,” Chara said.
Hossa knows how valuable Chara is to the Bruins — both in terms of his skill and the number of minutes he endures.
“We know he’s going to play almost half a game each night,” Hossa said. “He’s their top guy. The team is around him. He’s going to hurt you if you don’t move your feet. If you’re standing still, you have to shift him. You can take advantage stopping and starting, it’s harder for him to move because he’s so big.
“He’s unbelievable. He’s one of their best defensemen. We know it’s going to be a battle against him, but we have to find a way somehow to deal with him.”Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.