With as many holes as Bruins coach Claude Julien was trying to plug, he couldn’t deny how badly his team needed its captain, Zdeno Chara, even if the coach’s conscience told him it was better to be cautious.
A defense that came into the season with question marks already was shaken by the loss of Dennis Seidenberg (back surgery).
With Chara sidelined for the first two games of the season with an upper-body injury, the Bruins were lit up for 10 goals.
His absence was noticeable.
“Z’s our leader,” said forward Chris Kelly. “On and off the ice.”
After playing just 1:57 in the preseason, Chara gave the Bruins 21:27 in his debut Monday, but his comeback wasn’t a cure-all.
The Bruins squandered a two-goal lead in the first period, sabotaged themselves with defensive breakdowns, and took their third straight loss of the season, 6-3, to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Even though he missed 19 games last season with a knee injury, Chara has been a constant for the Bruins — no one on the team has logged more ice time over the past five seasons — and Julien said he made his return seamless by keeping things simple.
“He made the game look easy for a guy that hadn’t played much this year — maybe a minute and a half in the preseason,” Julien said. “He made things look easy because he kept the game simple and he made the right decisions. I was pleasantly surprised at his first game.”
But after the loss, Chara wasn’t particularly in the mood for self-evaluation.
“I felt fine,” he said, keeping his words about his physical condition as short as possible. “Just keep improving.”
From his tone alone, he wasn’t just speaking for himself, but for a team still searching for a win after giving up 16 goals in its first three games.
“I think that we need to get better, no questions,” Chara said. “I think that, overall, we have to improve every aspect of our game.
“I think we had a good start of the game. We created really good chances. Obviously our power play was really good today.
“Then at some point of the game, we stopped respecting the game plan and we got into trouble, and that’s when teams will take advantage. Especially when you play good teams like Tampa and so on, you’re going to be paying the price for that.”
Chara suffered the upper-body injury in a Sept. 24 preseason game against the New York Rangers when a check from Ryan Bourque sent him crashing into the boards. That plus Seidenberg’s injury compounded issues for an inexperienced Bruins team that didn’t need any extra issues.
But Chara said the team’s circumstances shouldn’t be an excuse for its performance.
“There are so many teams that are going through changes, made changes, and I don’t think they are 0-3,” Chara said. “We can’t be feeling sorry for ourselves. We have to find a way to get better and perform better. So that’s not the reason we are playing poorly right now.”
For the second time this season, the Bruins jumped out to an early lead and let it go to waste, and Chara blamed part of that on veering from the game plan.
“We’ve just got to put together 60 minutes,” Chara said. “We’re always saying that. We have to respect the game plan for the full 60. You can’t be just playing 20, then whatever. You’ve got to be focused on what’s the right play at the right time and you have to make the right decision.
“I feel that we mean well, but we are not always making it easy on ourselves.”
Kelly was sure that Chara’s words would carry weight in a locker room full of young players.
“If you’re a young defenseman, just watching him play, you can really learn a lot,” Kelly said. “How great his gap is to how composed he is with the puck. Just little things that he does extremely well. I know if I was a young defenseman, I’d be watching him really closely.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.