ST. LOUIS — The road to attrition, and for the Bruins now, playoff perdition.
Already minus Matt Grzelcyk and Kevan Miller, two of their top six defensemen, the Bruins were without team captain, and force field, Zdeno Chara for ostensibly the final two periods of Monday night’s 4-2 loss to the Blues in Game 4.
They’ll hope to have Chara, who spent the third period on the bench fitted with a full face shield, back for Game 5 on Thursday at the Garden. That might be a stretch. The 6-foot-9-inch Trencin Tower of Power was felled 3:07 into the second period, a Brayden Schenn wrister riding up Chara’s stick shaft, the puck striking him around the mouth.
Coach Bruce Cassidy said he is uncertain if Chara will be able to suit up in the next game and that his top shutdown defenseman will probably need some dental work.
“I don’t know his status for Game 5,” said Cassidy. “Obviously when he gets home he’ll have to be evaluated. See how he feels [Tuesday] for starters.
Chara has a very high pain threshold, so it was odd to see him just sit on the bench and not take a shift in third period, even after needing the full remainder of the second period to get patched up in the Boston dressing room and be fitted with a protective facial shield.
“He wanted to come and be with his teammates,” said Cassidy. “That’s why he was out there.”
With a small amount of blood splatter still on his jersey, and wearing the shield, Chara sat at the end of the Boston bench and watched the third period. From time to time, he hunkered over, lowering his head toward his knees as he sat and watched, clutching his stick. He appeared to be in substantial pain.
The two-day break prior to Game 5 could help Chara mend. If not, Cassidy will call on either Steve Kampfer or perhaps rookie Urho Vaakanainen. He acknowledged both options in his postgame news conference, and also mentioned rookies Jakub Zboril and Jeremy Lauzon as possibilities.
“We’d have to look at Kampfer first, he’s played for us in the playoffs,”said Cassidy. “And he’s another left stick, so we may measure that as well.”
The Bruins are highly vulnerable, as any team would be sans half of their best defensive corps. Chara, with the league’s best plus-minus rating in the 2019 playoffs, is best at disrupting the Blues attack into the zone, capable of shutting off his side of the ice. It’s a smaller sheet for the Blues when he is out there.
With him absent, the Blues attack was relentless, unremitting, overwhelming.
Miller, yet to play in the postseason, plays the tough man’s role – something the Bruins dearly could use against an amped-up Blues squad intent on playing fast and furious.
About 80 percent of the back line toughness exists in Chara and Miller. Expensive losses.
Grzelcyk, felled in Game 2 on a nasty Oskar Sundqvist hit, is one of the club’s best puck fetchers and distributors. He showed in Game 1 the ability to diminish some of the St. Louis strong forechecking game.
No easy repair for Cassidy. None of his spares can mitigate the combined losses of Miller, Grzelcyk and possibly Chara.
■ Quick strike for the Blues, with Ryan O’Reilly connecting on Tuukka Rask with only 43 seconds gone in the first. The Bruins survived the early crush by the Blues in Game 3 Saturday, but ROR’s quick first strike established just the tone Blues coach Craig Berube wanted. The tone was set and didn’t change.
■ Wayne Gretzky was in the house. The Great One, 58, was flipped here from LA at the end of the 1995-96 season and helped the Blues through two rounds of the postseason. He then joined the Rangers for a three-season farwell tour.
■ Berube’s Sunday strategy, whining about officiating in Game 3, might have worked. The zebras didn’t whistle a penalty vs. the Blues in the first period, despite an array of aggressive smacks that were borderline minors.
The Blues were assessed only three minors all night.
■ Chara rarely moves down from his spot on left defense, but the captain’s bold pinch triggered the equalizing goal, 1-1, with 13:14 gone in the first. He zipped down to the outer edge of the left wing circle and wristed a shot that Charlie Coyle first tipped on goalie Jordan Binnington. Coyle then pounced and potted the rebound for his ninth strike of the postseason.
Not only did the Bruins lose Chara’s defensive tools, but on a night when their offense rarely perked, they could have used more of his ability to jump up into the play.
■ Schenn was partly at fault for Boston’s equalizer. He made a needless hit on Danton Heinen in the left wing circle just as Chara made his pinch down the wing. Had Schenn not been intent on making the smack, he might haven been in position down low to prevent the shot, or the rebound attempt. But the Blues are here because they love to hit. That won’t change. They finished with a 44-41 hit advantage, led by a game-high nine smacks from Ivan Barbashev.
■ Boston’s big line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak landed only one shot on net, from Pastrnak, in the opening 20 minutes. Even worse, it was the only shot attempt they cobbled together in the period. Marchand didn’t land a shot on net for his 20:45 time on ice.
■ Barbashev and Sundqvist landed quick consecutive smacks on Boston back liner Brandon Carlo in the closing minute of the first — two of the eye-popping 24 smacks they landed in the first (16 for Boston).
It was Sundqvist who had to sit out Game 3 because of his boarding hit that concussed Grzelcyk early in Game 2.
■ Carlo got his payback with 5:41 left in the second period, potting his first career playoff goal for the 2-2 equalizer.
He was left with a wide-open right side after Bergeron landed his shorthanded attempt off the rush. Binnington with a desperation dive to his left. Carlo with the forehand pot to glove side.
■ The Blues backed off the hitting game slightly in the second — able to freewheel with Chara missing — and landed only five smacks.
■ Cassidy was duly disappointed by his squad’s tepid offensive performance.
Swarmed start to finish by the Blues, they couldn’t get their forwards on track.
“I think our forwards have to do a way better job with our D out,” said Cassidy. “Some of this has to go on them. They have to pull their weight in terms of puck support, helping out the D, finishing some plays. We had some lines tonight with very few shot attempts.
“They are going to have to pull their weight, especially if these guys are out. That’s just the way it is . . . that’s the hand we’re dealt.”