ST. LOUIS — The ‘C’ stitched into the upper left corner of his sweater was sprayed with blood, the graying whiskers on his chin similarly painted red. But a little blood was never going to keep Zdeno Chara from the third period of this Stanley Cup Final game, even if he had to do it as a spectator in full pads.
So there he was Monday night, stationed at the end of the Bruins’ bench, full face mask protecting his damaged face, full character boosting his already legendary leadership profile.
A puck to the face turned Chara into little more than a glorified doorman across those final 20 minutes of Boston’s 4-2, Game 4 loss, a gruesome collision rendering the veteran captain unable to do anything more than greet teammates skating on and off the ice. High fives were surely easier to come by than words, and not just because the Blues’ home crowd turned this into as raucous an atmosphere as any the Bruins have played in this season. The personal protective shield sitting atop Chara’s face was there in case another errant puck should come flying toward him, a layer of protection he did not have at 3:07 of the second period, when Brayden Schenn’s shot slid up Chara’s stick and caught him square in the chin/jaw area.
As broadcaster Pierre McGuire was describing the carnage to the television audience — “He’s leaking. He’s going to need to go in for some serious repairs.” — Chara was already playing the role of indestructible giant Bruins fans know so well. He barely reacted, bending only at the waist as blood dripped to his skates, quickly unfolding his 6-foot-9 frame to exit the ice under his own power. Only the blood remained, with Chara gone for the rest of the period, and ultimately, out of action for the remainder of the game.
“He just sets the example. You don’t stay down. You get right up. The legs still work,” teammate Charlie Coyle would say later, a hushed locker room hoping the loss of yet another defenseman won’t be too much to overcome in a series tied at two games apiece, back in Boston on Thursday and again for a potential Game 7. “That’s Zee for you. He’s a warrior.”
A few minutes later, in a different corner of the room, another veteran teammate and a one-time captain himself (with these very same St. Louis Blues) was using the same description.
“He’s a warrior,” David Backes said. “He doesn’t let anything keep him down. Yeah, it was huge to have him back on the bench giving moral support.”
How much the Bruins missed Chara on the ice is difficult to quantify, yet impossible to understate. As wave after wave of Blues players came crashing through the Boston end, the remaining defensemen did their mightiest to keep up, and youngster Brandon Carlo, playing in his first postseason, did an enviable job filling in.
At 6-foot-5, Carlo is the only Bruin who can even remotely resemble Chara in stature, and on the ice, he did his best to anchor the defense across an incredible stretch of seven-plus minutes when the Blues absolutely smothered the Bruins with their forecheck. The tension was finally broken when Connor Clifton was sent off for a hit to Vladimir Tarasenko’s head, and it was Carlo who shocked the home team with a shorthanded goal shortly thereafter — one that might have shocked himself too, given it was his first of the playoffs.
But that proved to be a last gasp for Boston, which — like the Game 2 loss at home, which they were forced to finish out without a concussed Matt Grzelzyk — was just too thin on defense to stop the Blues. With Chara gone, their heart and soul was gone too.
“He was advised not to return to play, had some stitches, probably dental work in the near future, but he wanted to be with his teammates, that’s why he was out there [on the bench],” head coach Bruce Cassidy said.
‘Advised not to play’ makes you wonder if Chara tried to talk his way in. But really, can you even imagine what a puck to the face might feel like?
“I’ve done it. It’s hellacious and I don’t wish it on anybody,” Backes said. “Zee got it, but you know what, it’s part of the risk of playing this game. And if there’s any chance, any snowball’s chance in hell, he’ll be back in the lineup and fighting for us no question.”
Cassidy left that question open.
“I don’t know his status for Game 5. He’ll have to be reevaluated at home. I can’t say either way whether he’ll play. . . . The conversation [Monday] was short. He was getting work done, we were going on the ice, the trainers come to me and said, ‘Done for the night.’ The question was asked that he’d like to sit with his teammates. I’m like, ‘If medically he’s able to do that, then that’s fine.’ ”
So there he sat, the same way he came out on the ice after the Bruins clinched the Eastern Conference title — in full uniform despite missing the game due to injury, there to be with his teammates and congratulate the vanquished Hurricanes.
The same way he stood at his locker stall during the 11-day layoff between that Carolina sweep and this Stanley Cup start, and described a leadership approach that leaves no man behind, refusing to even use the word ‘rookie,’ never mind hazing new players, choosing to be inclusive instead.
The same way he drags his 42-year-old body to the gym every day, a love for the game fueling his desire to play it as long as he possibly can.
In another world, the ‘C’ stitched into the upper left corner of his sweater could be mistaken for a monogram. His last name does indeed begin with C. But for that to be true, Zdeno Chara would have had to make this about himself.
And as we were reminded in the most painful way possible Monday, that is one thing he surely won’t do.