BOSTON -- Captaincies are earned on nights like these.
The Bruins were at a crossroads Wednesday night in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Down one road was a 3-0 series lead and a huge margin for error against a Philadelphia Flyers team that certainly had Boston's number in last season's playoffs. Down the other, was a series perched on a knife's edge heading into Friday's Game 4.
Their captain, defenseman Zdeno Chara, was front and center in making sure the Bruins went down the right path -- basically from the game's very first shift.
Thirty seconds into the game, Chara was at the top of the left circle for a pass from Brad Marchand. Instead of moving the puck again, Chara took decisive action, hammering his legendary slapper -- the one that has won him four Hardest Shot titles and regularly tops out at 100-plus mph -- just under the crossbar before goalie Brian Boucher could react.
Boston scored again 33 seconds later – Chara was on the ice again – and the rout was on. When it was over, 82 seconds after Chara scored a 5-on-3 goal – Boston's first power-play goal in 31 attempts this postseason – Chara had three points and a plus-4 rating and the Bruins sat just one win away from reaching the third round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 1992.
"Z with two goals and one in the first shift, it shows how big of a captain he is, how big of a leader, and why he's a leader and why he's a captain," Marchand said.
The goals were Chara's first two of the postseason, and they came on the slap shot, which he has not regularly displayed in the first nine games of the postseason. But on Wednesday he was hammering away, finishing with five shots on goal.
"Obviously with his shot is a cannon, so you don't want to get hit by that," fellow defenseman Johnny Boychuk said. "But it's nice to see him score two nice goals like that. And I think that's what he likes.
Boston goaltender Tim Thomas doesn't face Chara's full-blast shot very often, but he has seen what can happen when Chara is raising his stick toward the rafters to unleash another howitzer.
"It is great to see him get that offense going," Thomas said. "He has that potential. He's got an amazing shot. Ask the opposing goalies that are facing it – it is no fun to see that guy winding up on you. He gets himself in the right spots and gets those goals. It makes it easier on the whole team."
While the goals jumped off the game film Wednesday night, it was once again the subtle things that Chara did that proved his worth to this team.
Depth defenseman Shane Hnidy, inserted into the lineup Wednesday after Adam McQuaid suffered an injury in Monday's Game 2, was used sparingly. In fact, he played just 2:38 in the game. That means big minutes fell to Boston's top-4 D.
Chara stepped to the forefront by assuming a workload of more than 28 minutes. He was on the ice virtually every time Philadelphia's most dangerous offensive players hopped over the boards.
For Chara, those numbers were far more important than the goals.
"Well we all know that the most important thing right now is wins," Chara said. "I've said it all along, if you can help out offensively, that's a plus. For me personally, I really try to focus on my defensive game. Play strong throughout the games and I'm not really worried about points. I'm just counting wins and that's the way we look at it in the room. It's nice to score, there is no question about that, but I think that we all know it's all about the wins."
The Bruins are just one win removed from exorcising another playoff demon and advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals. But Chara won't get ahead of himself here. Yes, he has put his team on the right road, but he knows it must now finish the journey.
Last season, Boston sat at this same fork in the road – up 3-0 in the series against the Flyers – and veered horribly off the proper path on their way to a collapse worthy of the record books.
To avoid that scenario again is his sole focus for the next two days, he says.
"We are glad that we are in the position that we are," Chara said. "But still there is one more win we have to accomplish to move on, and that is where our focus is right now."