MONTREAL – It is almost impossible to quantify just how much of an impact the presence of Zdeno Chara has on the Boston Bruins lineup because, like the man himself, it's almost too large to measure.
But the one player who has the best view of that impact and perhaps benefits from it the most was able to put it in perfect perspective after the Bruins captain triumphantly returned from a one-game absence to help lead his team to a crucial 4-2 win in Game 3 on Monday, cutting their first round deficit to the Montreal Canadiens in half.
"He makes a huge difference," said Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas, who made 14 of his 34 saves in the third period to withstand a late Canadiens' charge. "He's one of the most important players if not the most important player on this team, and he's one of, if not the best, defensemen in the League. It's harder to play without him. Last game we wanted to step up for him and we weren't able to get it done, but it was nice to see him back. He's such a big part of our team."
Chara was hospitalized with dehydration reportedly brought on by a virus the night prior to Boston's 3-1 loss in Game 2, and though he took the pre-game warm-up, ultimately couldn't go.
"Since this morning I knew I would be most likely (playing)," Chara said. "I wanted to play the game before, but I knew it wouldn't be the smart decision for the team. I was really anxious to be in the lineup tonight."
Chara was indeed smiling and laughing during Monday's morning skate and looked to be suffering no ill effects from his ordeal over the previous 72 hours in Game 3, logging a team high 26:20 of ice time and bringing his stabilizing influence to his team for every second of it.
"You can ask any player that plays against him," Bruins coach Claude Julien said, "he's not an easy guy to play against."
Chara's medical condition overshadowed the prevailing narrative of his return to Montreal six weeks after his hit on Max Pacioretty left the Canadiens left winger with a broken vertebra in his neck and a concussion, one that still leaves him on the sidelines.
It helped make the Bell Centre about as hostile as a road arena can get for the Bruins, but they stared down 21,273 jeering fans and quieted them by taking their first lead of the series just over three minutes into the game, paving the way for a win that cut the Canadiens series lead down to 2-1.
"It's a balance of being intense and being in control," Canadiens defenseman Hal Gill said. "You try and control your intensity, but sometimes you control it too much. I think we could have been a little more intense and used that rather than trying to find that balance. Maybe we were on the wrong side of that balance."
The Bruins jumped out to a 2-0 first period lead, extended it to 3-0 early in the second, and then held on for dear life as the Canadiens mounted a comeback charge that fell just short.
"We didn't compete in the first 30 minutes," Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said. "I told the players this morning it was a good thing we weren't playing this morning, because we weren't ready."
While Carey Price has been phenomenal all season and dominated in the Canadiens two series-opening wins in Boston, it was his careless giveaway to Rich Peverley at 2:02 of the second period that turned out to be the winner, leaving a wide open cage for him to fire in his first career playoff goal.
"He made some big saves for us, then you get a (bad) bounce and that’s what happens," Gill said. "The whole game there's going to be ugly bounces, but you have to stay in the battle and that's what we didn't do well enough tonight to win."
The entire city of Boston likely breathed a collective sigh of relief as the Bruins' vaunted top line finally contributed their first goals of the series, with David Krejci converting a perfect feed from Patrice Bergeron at 3:11 of the first to give the Bruins their first lead of the series.
Krejci's left winger Nathan Horton added to the lead at 14:38, banking a sharp angle shot in off Price to put the Bruins up 2-0.
"They've been contributing so well for us all year long, and you expect that to continue," Julien said. "But you have to realize there are some challenges in the playoffs with a lot tighter checking and a lot tighter matchups. Then you've got a guy like Nathan Horton who's in his first playoffs, so this was his third playoff game, and what I saw is a guy getting better. After he scored that goal, it certainly took a lot of weight off his shoulders. Hopefully they can build on that."
The hot start fit perfectly with what the Bruins were saying their priority was Monday morning, and that would be to take the effect of the charged up Bell Centre crowd out of the game with a fast start, something the Canadiens did to them at TD Garden in both Games 1 and 2.
And it was needed, as the crowd was energized by a pre-game introduction featuring a brief video message from Pacioretty.
This was Chara's first visit back, and the Montreal fans were not shy in letting him know how they felt, though the booing when he touched the puck wasn't that much more intense than when Chara visits town under normal circumstances.
By the time Peverley made it 3-0 on Price's gaffe early in the second, the energy in the building had been completely sapped out, and the Bruins could say mission accomplished.
However, perhaps they were a bit too satisfied with their start because the Bruins allowed the Canadiens to climb back in it.
First Andrei Kostitsyn, making his own return to the lineup after missing Game 2 with a foot injury that was also inflicted by Chara, turned the Bruins captain inside out before slipping a dribbling backhand between the legs of Thomas at 7:03 of the second, giving the fans a little bit of life.
The Canadiens had a power play over the final two minutes of the second, but generated very little offensively with their fans prepared to explode.
Montreal came out for the third period with some newfound focus and took the play to a Bruins team that appeared to content to sit on its two-goal lead.
Tomas Plekanec turned that pressure into results at 4:08 of the third when he quickly wheeled in the corner and beat Thomas with a shot from a near impossible angle to cut the lead down to one.
But as shaky as Thomas looked in allowing those two goals, he was outstanding in maintaining the Bruins’ slim lead from then on, most notably with a great pad save on Kostitsyn from the slot with just over four minutes to play and another scrambling save on Scott Gomez from in tight with a little under three minutes left.
"He made some big saves," Julien said. "The fact he was able to do that shows a lot of character, because there's no doubt he'd like to have those two goals back. A goaltender could have just had negative thoughts in his mind and not been sharp in the end. For him to do what he did showed he was willing to redeem himself."
Chris Kelly sealed it with an empty-net goal with 25.6 seconds left to play, allowing the Bruins to head off for two days of practice in Lake Placid, N.Y., somewhat relieved that they are not facing a near impossible 3-0 deficit in the series.
It also must be a relief to finally win a game in Montreal on their fourth try of the season, giving them some reason to believe they can do it one more time to head back home to Boston with the series knotted up 2-2.
"It was a necessary win," Thomas said. "Playing in Montreal is not easy, so it was a gut check for us and we got the job done."