BOSTON — Zdeno Chara can’t speak, but he was the talk of the town in Boston Thursday.
A few days after suffering a broken jaw in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final in St. Louis, whispers about whether he could play through the injury began percolating. They rose to a murmur when he hit the ice for Thursday’s morning skate: could he actually do this?
By the time the Bruins’ 6-foot-9 captain took warmups at TD Garden 25 minutes or so before the puck dropped on Game 5, it was the appreciative roar from the 17,565 fans that told the story. Against seemingly all odds, his face protected by a special shield, Chara willed himself onto the ice to try to help his team win two more games — and all-importantly his second career Cup.
It is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a jaw-dropping moment.
The Garden crowd erupted into a long, defeaning cheer when Chara was introduced as part of Boston’s starting lineup alongside defense partner Charlie McAvoy and first line forwards Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak.
If the Bruins win the Cup, or even just Game 5, Chara’s improbable return will stand with the best injury-related moments in Boston sports history. Curt Schilling’s bloody sock will have Chara’s mask just below it on the Beantown mantle.
From Chara’s point of view, it’s just part of the job when you’re a captain in the National Hockey League. Unable to speak, he gave a written answer to the press that made it sound like playing through an injury that would’ve felled most men was routine.
“At this time of the playoffs, everyone has injuries and there are challenges you have to overcome,” he wrote. “I’m no different than any player on either team.”
The entire regular season was played to gain the advantage of having home ice in the Final. Moments like Thursday’s Game 5 are where it may mean the most: the emotional lift the Bruins will get from Chara’s mere presence will mean so much more in front of the home crowd. The energy produced every time he steps on the ice, even if its only for a fraction of his usual shifts, could carry Boston.
“That’s toughness. That’s leadership,” Bruins defenseman John Moore said. “The guy’s a legend for a reason.”
Even Tom Brady, the six-time Super Bowl winner taking part in Patriots mini-camp 90 minutes away in Foxborough, had words about the B’s captain.
“He’s been a great kind of role model for people, very tough, very disciplined, very dedicated guy,” Brady said. “One of the nicest guys I’ve ever met in my life ... knowing him, he’ll be out there if he can.”
There is, however, a difference between playing and playing well (ask Rams running back Todd Gurley about playing poorly in pain in Super Bowl LIII against the Patriots in February). That’s where things remain a little bit hairy for Boston’s depleted defensive corps.
The biggest issues for Boston in their losses to St. Louis have been puck management and failure to control territory at 5-on-5. They’ve been hemmed in their own zone, forechecked into oblivion and unable to break the puck out — facets of the game that are not among Chara’s strengths at age 42.
The other Boston question mark on D, Matt Grzelcyk (concussion protocol), wasn’t cleared for action in Game 5. If he gets back for Game 6 Sunday night in St. Louis, given his reliability with the puck on his stick, it could stand to benefit the Bruins more than having Chara available.
Still, the image of Chara playing with his broken jaw is the stuff that will enter Beantown hockey lore right next to Gregory Campbell blocking shots with a broken leg in the 2013 playoffs, TIm Thomas pumping Roberto Luongo’s tires in the 2011 Final and Bobby Orr flying through the air in 1970.
What he’s going to give Boston in Games 5, 6 and possibly 7 emotionally means a lot more than whatever he will or won’t be able to do on the ice. It could be argued that the Blues have out-willed Boston in the games they’ve won, that they’ve been the more character driven hockey club.
“He’s an incredibly tough man. He’s willing to play through anything,” winger Brad Marchand said of Chara. “It shows so much character in him.”
There’s no way a team could get out-willed when their leader is laying it on the line with his mouth wired shut. For better or worse, that’s the character you need to win the Cup — and that’s why Chara wears the C.