Over the past year-plus, the Bruins have seen injury after injury to their defensemen: Dennis Seidenberg, Adam McQuaid, Dougie Hamilton, Kevan Miller. But their 6-foot-9-inch stalwart had, mostly, been immune. Since coming to Boston, Zdeno Chara has missed no more than five games in any season.
And that has been crucial.
But the Bruins faced a frightening prospect on Thursday night, watching as their captain left with about eight minutes to go in the first period of a 3-2 loss to the Islanders after playing 4:13 over five shifts. He did not return.
Multiple reports later in the night, the first by TSN, indicated Chara suffered a possible left knee ligament injury, which could keep him out for 4-6 weeks. At the end of that time, TSN reported, Chara could be evaluated to determine whether surgery might be needed.
The Bruins were tight-lipped after the game, with Claude Julien declining to specify even whether the injury was to Chara’s upper or lower body. In fact, Hamilton’s saying, “We’re aware that he’s hurt,” was the closest any Bruin came to divulging anything about Chara’s situation.
“No report yet,” Julien said. “We won’t know anything until he sees the proper people on the medical staff.”
And an extensive injury was not something Chara’s teammates wanted to contemplate.
“I don’t even want to think that far because we don’t know what it is and hopefully it’s not too long,” Seidenberg said. “But he’s the heart and soul of this team. And whatever it is, hopefully he’s back soon.”
The last significant impact for Chara was a hit on John Tavares that leveled the Islanders center. Chara remained on the ice through the end of the shift, and only exited the bench later. The Bruins are already down a defenseman, with Miller out indefinitely with a dislocated right shoulder suffered in a fight on Saturday in Buffalo.
Chara’s injury could put them further in the hole.
“He’s obviously not just big in stature, but he’s a leader out there,” Seidenberg said.
“He takes up a lot of room. He’s dominant in the defensive zone. He’s the biggest part of this team. We have to embrace this opportunity; whatever happens, happens. We just have to play better as a whole.”
That much was clear early in the game, both before and after Chara was injured. The Bruins continued to have crucial defensive-zone breakdowns, a rarity in the past that has become all too common this season.
They continue to lose players in front of the net, such as on Kyle Okposo’s tiebreaking goal at 1:30 of the second, and those players often put the puck in the net.
“He just got lost behind us,” said Matt Bartkowski. “Nothing much. That’s about it. You’ve got to pick him up.”
“It’s something we look at,” Julien said. “I’ll deal with that internally. It’s obviously an issue.”
So, too, was the fact that the Bruins didn’t look ready to face the Islanders for the first 40 minutes. It was only in the third period, when they were down by two goals, that the Bruins played the way they can play, a period Bartkowski called “some of the best hockey we’ve played.”
“We definitely started the game way too late,” Patrice Bergeron said. “It can’t happen. The last 20 is the way we want to play and we definitely dictated that period. We missed some opportunities to get back in the game to tie it up, but still, if you don’t play for 40 it’s hard to win a game only with 20 minutes.”
The Bruins and Islanders exchanged scores in the first, with Frans Nielsen tallying at 6:21, and Milan Lucic answering with his first of the season at 18:21. Then came Okposo’s goal, followed by the eventual winner by Cal Clutterbuck at 9:27 of the second.
“It’s frustrating and there’s no lack of trying, I think everyone’s trying,” Hamilton said. “Everyone’s frustrated that the goals are going in. We all don’t want them to go in, so it’s not like we’re cheating and it’s not like we’re not trying to play good defense.”
Said Seidenberg, “It’s a mind-set, I think. It’s ‘protect the house,’ we say. Close the slot first and go from there. And we haven’t been doing this consistently in the last few games and that’s what happens. You get scored on in that area.”
Chris Kelly managed to get the Bruins within one in the third, putting a rebound past Chad Johnson at 9:49, and the Bruins had plenty of chances after that. But they couldn’t score the tying goal, and missed a chance to go back above .500.
But the final score wasn’t the most important thing on Thursday. It was the health of Chara, a player who is irreplaceable.
“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,” Julien said. “Again, we showed in the third that we’re able to handle it, so 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.”