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Bruins’ Zdeno Chara needs rest before playoffs

The Bruins must distribute some of Zdeno Chara’s minutes before the playoffs begin.

MICHAEL DWYER/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Bruins must distribute some of Zdeno Chara’s minutes before the playoffs begin.

In the last 30 days, Zdeno Chara played in five NHL games and four Olympic matches, carried his country’s flag, and traveled to and from Sochi, Russia. The punishing workload is showing up in the captain’s legs.

Since returning from the Olympics, Chara’s top-end speed has flagged. In Buffalo last Wednesday night, Matt D’Agostini blew past Chara in overtime to score the winning breakaway goal. The Rangers, quick to stretch out the Bruins, slipped behind Chara several times Sunday night.

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It is imperative for the Bruins to acquire defensive reinforcements before Wednesday’s trade deadline. They need an experienced left-shot defenseman to assume some of Dennis Seidenberg’s responsibilities in the playoffs.

But the Bruins also must distribute some of Chara’s minutes before the playoffs begin.

Chara, Tuukka Rask, and Patrice Bergeron are the team’s three most important players. If any of the three is injured or fatigued in the playoffs, the Bruins will be in trouble. Last year, the Bruins learned this the hard way. Bergeron’s car-crash-like injuries (punctured lung, broken rib, torn rib cartilage) made him a ghost in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. Chara (hip flexor) and Seidenberg, running on fumes at the end, didn’t have an answer for Chicago’s power line of Bryan Bickell, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane.

Chara, Rask, and Bergeron change the game in every area. Chara plays against every elite forward. Rask turns away more pucks than the Bruins expect him to stop. Bergeron spins his defensive assignments into scoring chances.

But Rask is 26 years old. Bergeron is 28. Chara will turn 37 March 18. Even a strongman shows his age when he’s performing high-mileage work.

The Bruins have 22 regular-season games remaining. Thirteen are on the road. Chara’s job is never easy. It gets harder away from TD Garden.

The Bruins almost always start Chara on the road. They also send him out regularly for defensive-zone draws. Opposing coaches, who have the last change, often counter by keeping their best forwards on the bench.

If the Bruins gain control of the puck, it allows Chara to get off the ice. It sounds simple in theory. In practice, it’s a grind for Chara to start so many shifts, hustle to the bench, then hop back over the boards.

Flat-out skating is not a critical component of Chara’s toolkit. The heart of his game is how he turns his perimeter into an offensive black hole. With help from his stick, Chara swallows up the left side of the defensive zone. He’s good at keeping tight gaps. There are few forwards willing to go body-to-body with the behemoth.

Chara’s done his job in the three post-break games. Against Washington, Chara helped to prevent Alex Ovechkin from scoring at even strength. One night later, Chara and Dougie Hamilton kept New York’s top line of Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan, and Rick Nash from beating Rask.

But Chara’s heavy legs indicate he’s not running on a full tank. Playing 25-plus minutes in back-to-back games uses a lot of gas.

This season, Chara is averaging 24:58 of ice time per game. He exceeded that average against the Capitals and Rangers. Chara played 25:55 Saturday. He logged 25:57 the next night. It’s no surprise the coaches are asking much of Chara. He has played in 1,112 NHL games. Hamilton, Matt Bartkowski, Kevan Miller, and Torey Krug combine for only 241 games of varsity experience.

But regularly burning Chara’s regular-season matches is a high-risk route. It’s a crutch the Bruins must keep from using.

They can address that issue by adding a shift-eater. Of their targets, Andrew MacDonald would be the top candidate. MacDonald averages 25:25 of ice time per game for the Islanders. MacDonald would play less as a Bruin. But as the left shot on the second pairing, he could take some of Chara’s shifts. MacDonald’s game and age (27) make him the best available blue-line rental. The price will be high.

Even if the Bruins don’t land MacDonald, they should take steps to rest their captain. Chara needs work to keep his mechanics and timing sharp. The Bruins can’t take away all of Chara’s practice time. But they could keep his sessions short. They also could forbid Chara from participating in any more morning skates, even if he insists he needs the routine to feel comfortable. It’s far better for Chara, especially on the road, to sleep in and rest during the day than wake up and burn useless hours for 15 minutes on the ice.

The best route, of course, would be to play better. The Bruins beat the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, 6-3. But they gave the Rangers more legitimate scoring chances than in their two previous games in which they allowed nine total goals.

“I don’t think they had too many easy shots,” Rask said after the win. “I haven’t seen the scoring chances yet. We wanted to get better defensively. We definitely didn’t get better. It’s something to look at. But it’s a great win to score six goals on a good goalie like that [Henrik Lundqvist]. So we’ve got to be satisfied with that.”

The Bruins have allowed the first goal in the last three games. They had to play their best players, including Chara, to catch up. The fix is to play better early, grab the lead, and control the rest of the game. In those situations, the Bruins roll four lines and three pairs instead of tabbing their lead dogs.

If they play better defense, they’ll win. If they win, they’ll climb higher in the standings and claim one of the top two seeds. By April, when they travel to Winnipeg and Minnesota for Games 79 and 80, they can tell Chara to forget about packing his bags.

April, however, is still a while away.

The Bruins might be looking to upgrade before Wednesday’s trade deadline. Here are some possible targets:

Shopping list?

The Bruins might be looking to upgrade before Wednesday’s trade deadline. Here are some possible targets:

PlayerTeamAgeHt.Wt.SalaryStatus
D Ron HainseyHurricanes326-3210$2mUFA
D Andrew MacDonaldIslanders276-1190$550,000UFA
D Andrej MeszarosFlyers286-2223$4mUFA
D Chris PhillipsSenators356-3221$3.1mUFA
D Stephane RobidasStars375-11190$3.3mUFA
D Henrik TallinderSabres356-4215$3.3mUFA
C Zenon KonopkaSabres336-0213$925,000UFA
LW Ryan SmythOilers386-2191$2.25mUFA
LW Ray WhitneyStars415-10180$4.5mUFA

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fluto.shinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.
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