Game Five of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final was about to begin, and the capacity crowd at the TD Garden in Boston was nervous.
Certainly the situation contributed in large part to the nerves. After building a 2-1 series lead over the St. Louis Blues, the Boston Bruins fell in Game Four, seeing the series come back east knotted at two games apiece.
Beyond that, however, was the health of their captain, Zdeno Chara. After notching his fourth assist of the playoffs, when Charlie Coyle scored off a rebound after Chara fired a shot in the direction of Jordan Binnington, Chara turned the puck over in Boston’s own end. He reacted as he did so many times before, putting his body in front of Brayden Schenn’s wrister:
The puck deflected into Chara’s face, and the massive defenseman dropped to the TD Garden ice in a heap. He skated off, leaving blood and more behind.
Yet he would return to the bench for the third period, to cheer on his team.
Two days passed between Game Four and Game Five, and with Boston fans hoping the Bruins would retake the series lead, they were also hoping for the best for their captain.
Yet during those two days, Chara underwent surgery to repair the damage to his jaw. And with Game Five about to begin there was Chara, that wall of granite, standing along the Boston blue-line as the players were introduced. A plastic shield was in place to protect his jaw, but his steely gaze showed he was more than ready to protect the Boston net.
The crowd exploded:
While Boston would go on to lose Game Five, and the series, this moment in many ways exemplifies what ‘Big Zee’ meant to the Bruins, and their fans, over his 14 years wearing the ‘B.’
Chara announced his retirement on Tuesday, signing a one-day contract with Boston to retire as a Bruin:
But that moment in 2019, returning first to the bench to lead his team while in obvious pain in Game Four, and then returning to the ice after undergoing surgery to log over 16 minutes of ice time — and block three shots — speaks to the player, teammate, and leader Chara was on the ice. Days later, in Game Six with Boston facing elimination, Chara’s empty-netter in the closing minutes sealed Boston’s win, forcing a deciding Game Seven.
His time in Boston was filled with similar moments. During the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Boston was on the brink of elimination in Game Seven of the conference quarterfinals against the Toronto Maple Leafs, trailing 4-1 with just over ten minutes remaining in the third period.
Chara remained on the ice the rest of the way, as Boston’s furious comeback forced overtime. Nathan Horton scored to cut Toronto’s lead to 4-2 at the 9:18 mark of the third period, but the Bruins could not break through as Chara continued to log minutes. Then, with under two minutes to go and the Bruins playing with an empty net, a Chara one-timer was stopped, but Milan Lucic hopped on the rebound to slide the puck past Toronto’s goalie, cutting the Toronto lead to one.
When Patrice Bergeron scored in the final minute, Chara was still on the ice. He would still be there in overtime, when Bergeron scored again to end the series, and send Boston to the next round.
Of course, Chara‘s career in Boston is defined by the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, when the Bruins lifted the Stanley Cup for the first time since the 1971-72 season. The massive defenseman, that wall of granite, was a rock for Boston throughout the playoffs, logging nearly 700 minutes of ice time as Boston survived a six-game series against Montreal in the conference quarter-finals, a seven-game series against Tampa Bay in the conference finals, and another seven-game series in the Final.
By the time the Cup was Boston’s, Chara had almost nothing left in the tank. But he still got it up over his head:
It was Boston’s sixth Stanley Cup, and again the first in decades. For many Bruins fans, like myself, it was the first we had seen. And for this Bruins fan, that run to the Cup took on special importance, as my wife and I would welcome our first child a few weeks later. In those closing weeks, we spent many a minute together, pondering our future while watching the Bruins in the present.
I’ll never forget those nights.
Chara delivered so many memories for Bruins fans over the years, including memories like that for this Bruins fan.
Thank you, Big Zee.