Zdeno Chara skated off the ice late Monday night, passed his oversized frame through a rinkside door, and disappeared into an unknown future. As he left, NBC’s Doc Emrick wondered out loud what every Bruins fan was thinking — whether the great defenseman and longtime Boston captain had just played his last game in black and gold.
Such is the nature of the season-ending story line, when finality hits hard and fast and leaves its painful bruise behind. With Chara, the uncertainty is obvious, given his age (43), his slowing legs, and his (for now) lack of a contract for next season.
But if he is the clearest example of how much changes from year to year, he is far from alone. Sports windows close every year for all but the last team standing, leaving players, coaches, and management wondering whether it’s wise to let the window shut or pry it open for one more year.
The Bruins should pry theirs open. Because what we saw Monday night was a team not ready to give in, or give up, on a solid core.
The Bruins lost Game 5 on Victor Hedman’s winner in the second overtime, sent packing from the second round of the playoffs by a four-games-to-one count, victimized by their nemesis Lightning for the second time in three years. Worse yet was the repeat embarrassment of 2018, when Tampa Bay similarly spotted the Bruins the first game of the series only to sweep the next four.
Yet at much as the Bruins appeared to lose this one in lopsided fashion, it was far closer than the numbers indicate.
Monday was only the final example — an end-to-end thriller that saw the Bruins play perhaps their most complete game of the series. David Krejci was the best of his playoff self, David Pastrnak was there with his signature power-play shot, Brad Marchand was his usual tornado of activity, and Jaroslav Halak was nothing short of heroic.
Krejci forced the OT with a daring, late third-period goal, Charlie McAvoy was toughness personified in returning from a crushing (and inexplicably unpenalized) hit, and coach Bruce Cassidy was creative in making up for the absences of , Chris Wagner, Sean Kuraly, and Nick Ritchie, never mind the subtraction of Tuukka Rask.
In other words, no shame in this loss. But there is sadness. And frustration. Gratitude, too, for even having the opportunity, given the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down the sports world for months and opened it back up only with these strange isolation bubbles.
But there also is an unmistakable air of wistful regret, rooted in the what-if of it all, whether the Bruins team that won the Presidents’ Trophy would have written a far different story had they not been interrupted.
“The way things were rolling throughout the season, we thought we were going to go all the way,” Marchand said. “You never know how many opportunities you’re going to have to win a Cup. We never know if we’re going to be back in the finals again or in even in the playoffs again. Every opportunity missed, it hurts.”
They lost their head of steam, limped through a reseeding round robin, and found themselves facing their worst matchup nightmare in the second round of the playoffs. Now, it’s over, and Marchand spoke to that painful reality. All those weeks away from family, friends, and fans. For naught. And with the pandemic still ongoing, there is no sense of what next season will bring. Just listen to more postgame comments:
Marchand: “We only have so many kicks at the can. And everyone, I think especially when we retire, I think that’s more when it’s going to hit us and say, ’What if …?’ It is what it is. You dwell on it, it’s going to hurt. It’s going to suck. This is how it goes. Only one team can win.”
Krejci (with his black baseball cap pulled low enough to obscure his face): “It just kind of hit me after the game that the core group, a few of us, we have one or two, three years left. With the pandemic going on, you never know what’s going to happen.”
Patrice Bergeron: “Obviously, wish that everyone is coming back and we can have another chance at it. It’s always a pleasure and a treat when you’re going out there with guys that you’ve been around for 10-plus years. You’d like to keep that and carry that, and keep going. Keep going with them. But [change], it’s a fact.”
And Cassidy, swallowing hard: “I told them, for me it’s always an honor and a privilege to coach these guys. Listen, there’s days where as a coach I’m frustrated, fans, organizations, players themselves, but they, we come to work every day.
“We’re disappointed it didn’t go better for us, no doubt. There will be some evaluation of players, coaches, up and down, that’s what any good organization will do once their season is done.”
The biggest question is Chara, as well as defenseman Torey Krug, a 29-year-old free agent looking at a big contract. The first postgame question to Big Z was whether he’d made a decision about his future, and not surprisingly, he deferred, saying he hadn’t, but that he’d be “open-minded.”
I say the Bruins welcome him back with open arms. In a limited role, of course, one that defers to his slowing legs but values his incredible physicality as well as his unquantifiable leadership. Because if this group is going to get one more shot, and given all the strangeness of this season and its pandemic restart, given how close Monday’s game was, given how that top line is still one of the best in the NHL, Chara still has so much to contribute.
Find a way to bring Krug back, too, and cross your fingers all is right again with Rask.
Keep the band together.
“Definitely, it’s still very raw and disappointing,” Chara said. “I know personally and speaking for all the guys, they left it out there and played with their heart.”