Between the first and second period, the Bruins learned that Zdeno Chara would not be available for the rest of Thursday night’s game.
It was no coincidence their second period was their worst 20-minute stretch of the night. The Islanders turned the shell-shocked Bruins’ defensive zone into a sandbox. It was play time.
“We just sleepwalked through the second period,” Dennis Seidenberg said. “We didn’t want the puck. That’s why, at the end, we lost the game.”
Chara played only five first-period shifts for 4:13 of ice time. The injury most likely took place when Chara hammered John Tavares with a thump that dumped the Islander on his back. Chara led into the check with his left arm. His left knee also made contact with Tavares’s leg.
Seconds after the hit, Niklas Svedberg covered the puck at 11:18 of the first. There was a TV timeout. Chara stayed on the ice. He started his next shift. But when the Bruins cleared the zone, the captain left the ice and never returned.
Shortly after the 3-2 loss, Claude Julien wasn’t saying anything about Chara: what he hurt, how he was injured, how much time he might miss. His team’s second-period play, however, answered how long the Bruins can afford to be without their captain, which according to a report by TSN could be 4-6 weeks.
Whether it’s a short-term injury or something longer, nothing is good when “Chara” and “injured” appear in the same sentence. He is one of the three players, along with Patrice Bergeron and Tuukka Rask, who cannot be replaced.
There is no player in Providence, to say nothing of the entire league, with a 6-foot-9-inch frame, 1,141 games of NHL experience, a stick that stretches from TD Garden to Charlestown, and a snarl that makes forwards scurry for cover to call upon when Chara is unable to play.
“He’s an irreplaceable player,” Chris Kelly said. “He plays every situation for us and he’s our leader. We’re going to need to fill that void collectively as a group. Not just one guy is going to be able to do that.”
The Bruins caught their breath in the third period. They whistled 35 pucks toward former teammate Chad Johnson. Fifteen landed on goal and one slipped past Johnson when Kelly bumped in the rebound of a Carl Soderberg shot.
“When you lose your captain and one of your better defensemen, there’s no doubt it’s going to have an effect on your team,” said Julien. “We showed in the third that we were able to handle it. That’s my perspective on it. You’re going to lose guys during the season. Those things happen. How you react to it and how you respond is what’s important.”
The hockey gods felled Chara, of course, on the night of Johnny Boychuk’s return. The Bruins already were without Kevan Miller, sidelined because of a dislocated right shoulder.
The Bruins entered training camp with what they considered nine NHL-quality defensemen. They played two-plus periods on Thursday with five.
Among that group, Seidenberg is trying to find his groove after missing half of last season with a blown-out knee. Torey Krug has spent the last two games playing his off side. Matt Bartkowski has been a healthy scratch for six of the nine games.
“It’s our best defenseman and leader of our team,” Dougie Hamilton said. “We have to step up even more. I thought we did OK. I thought our second period wasn’t good at all. The third period, we stepped it up but we couldn’t score. We’ve had a lot of experience in the past with losing defensemen early in the game. We all knew we had to play a lot.”
Chara is a coach’s dream. When the Islanders rolled out their top line of Tavares between Cory Conacher and Kyle Okposo, the Bruins countered with Chara and Hamilton.
In the second, freed from their shadow, New York’s top line went to work. It worked the puck along the walls. It overpowered the Bruins when they tried to clear the puck.
Tavares, using his reach and body to protect the puck, fought off Bergeron behind the net and fed Brian Strait at the point. Okposo gained net-front position between Bartkowski and Adam McQuaid. When Strait’s shot arrived, Okposo was free to slam the rebound home with little resistance to give the Islanders a 2-1 lead at 1:30.
Later in the second, the Islanders worked over the third line and a Bartkowski-Krug pairing. Bartkowski gained the puck behind his net. But he rushed a clearing pass around the wall that Casey Cizikas picked off. Moments later, Matt Martin slipped a backhand puck through traffic to Cal Clutterbuck in front.
When the Bruins are rolling, such passes do not get through. If they do, the Bruins collapse into the slot to prevent scoring chances. They gave Clutterbuck a free ride to score the winner at 9:27 of the second.
The Bruins play Toronto on Saturday. Usually, the Leafs’ top line of James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, and Phil Kessel would see Chara everywhere: on the ice, in the room, and in their cars on the way home.
Now Chara’s availability is in question. If he can’t play, the Bruins will call up a defenseman from Providence. If they need a left shot, David Warsofsky and Chris Breen are options. If they want a third right shot to complement Hamilton and McQuaid, they could tab Zach Trotman or Chris Casto.
These players do not approach everything Chara does, from matching against top lines, killing four-minute power plays, blotting out the sun as a net-front power-play presence, or leading the charge and having teammates fall in line.
Every point is precious. So is every minute Chara plays. The two things usually go hand in hand.