CHICAGO — Most of Saturday morning’s media attention at the United Center focused on Bruins winger Nathan Horton. Was he in? Was he out? Was his shoulder still aching in the wake of his early exit Wednesday night in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.
“I’m ready to play,’’ said the ever-smiling Horton. “Everything is good. I am back. I am ready to go.’’
It was a striking, emphatic departure from years of standard protocol and practices involving injured Boston players. Typically, Bruins in such instances say only they feel they can play, and then note, time and time again, that the final call rests with coach Claude Julien. And typically, then Julien tells everyone that he has a few hours to make that decision, and the player’s availability might not be determined until moments before puck drop.
But Julien also on Saturday didn’t mess around with the decision.
“He’s in tonight,’’ Julien said. “He feels good. He feels really good.’’
Somewhat lost in the haze and mayhem of Wednesday night’s triple-overtime game between the Bruins and Blackhawks was how Boston’s captain, Zdeno Chara, assumed a slightly lower profile when the game grew over the 100-minute mark. Unlike Horton, he was still on the job, but he did not finish on a high note. That’s rare for Chara, because he customarily does everything on a high note, and his sense of perfection and meticulous attention to detail regarding all things defense are key among the many factors why the Bruins are in the Cup Final for a second time in three seasons.
A close examination of the playing minutes late in Game 1 reveals that Chara’s ice time (3:37) in the third overtime ranked eighth among Boston’s 18 skaters. That’s a surprise. Big Z is a minutes monster, one who typically leads the club. In Game 2 Saturday night, Chara played 30:58, two seconds behind team leader Dennis Seidenberg.
Chara finished 15th in average ice time per game (24:56) among all NHL skaters in the regular season, a little more than a minute more per game than the closest Boston workhorse, Seidenberg (23:47), who often pairs with Chara on Boston’s No. 1 shutdown unit. Even with his diminished role in the third OT in Game 1, Chara as of Saturday averaged a whopping 30:16 of ice time in the postseason, second only to Minnesota’s Ryan Suter’s 31:37 (the Wild were bounced in Round 1).
But as Game 1 drew to a close, Chara’s time diminished. Of the seven Bruins who compiled more minutes in the third OT, three were fellow blue liners, including Seidenberg (5:18), Andrew Ference (4:55), and even the previously benched Torey Krug (3:43).
“It was depending on matchups,’’ Julien explained. “You have to be able to rely on other guys, especially the further you go. The tougher it gets on those guys with heavy minutes . . . you have to rely on other guys.’’
Certainly true. It just never has been true with Chara. Which isn’t to suggest that anything went awry with him in Game 1, but it could be that he is finally feeling the toll of his many 30-minute playoff performances. For all practical purposes, he has jumped off the bench every other shift since the start of Round 1. Maybe 17 games into that routine, on a night when the city of Chicago again embraced a “let’s play two’’ mentality (apologies, Ernie Banks), Chara finally began to feel reality creep into his 6-foot-9-inch, 36-year-old frame.
It wasn’t, as Julien suggested, a matter of matchups or game situation. It was basic marrow-draining fatigue that had Chara on the bench for 8:31 of a third OT that lasted 12:08. By his standards, he missed about 2½ minutes of work. Chara finished with 45:05 on the night, ranking third behind Seidenberg (48:36) and Ference (45:19). That hardly makes him a withering wallflower, but as the Game 2 puck drop approached, it did at least hint that Chara might have to throttle back just slightly over the remainder of the playoffs.
If that is the case, then Julien might have to change the overall complexion or composition of his backline six-pack. The betting prior to Game 2 was that he might reinsert Matt Bartkowski, possibly as a straight sub for Krug, whose costly turnover in Game 1 led to a temporary benching and only 19:36 ice time in a game that lasted 112:08. Overall, Krug spent more than 80 percent of the game on the bench. His partner, Adam McQuaid, logged 22:06, which means he also worked only roughly 20 percent of the night. All of which meant extra stress on the likes of Johnny Boychuk, Ference, Seidenberg, and Chara.
Following the morning skate on Saturday, Julien praised Seidenberg’s contribution and endurance.
“Some guys are really good at handling those kind of minutes,’’ said the coach, a former defenseman. “They never seem to tire out. He’s definitely one of them. Over the years, even in playoffs, arguably he’s been our best defenseman. He’s able to take those minutes, handle them well from start to finish.
“You’re fortunate to have guys like that. As the game gets later, more tiresome . . . those kind of guys, you can still rely on them.’’
Chara has always been one of those guys in Boston. He remains one of those guys. But Game 1 showed that every man, even the Trencin Tower of Power, has his limits.