At first it seemed like life for the Boston Bruins without injured defenseman Zdeno Chara would be OK.
Chara tore a ligament in his knee in a loss to the New York Islanders on Oct. 23 but the Bruins won six of their next seven games. It looked like maybe the Bruins, who have Chara signed through the 2017-18 season at an NHL salary-cap charge of just less than $7 million, were fast-forwarding to the part of their history where they don't rely on their 6-foot-9 Norris Trophy-winning defenseman as much.
Then reality hit.
The Bruins managed a winning record (11-7-1) in the 19 games Chara missed during his seven weeks on the sidelines but were 2-4-1 in the seven games before his return Dec. 11. Then integrating Chara into the lineup proved problematic; Boston went 0-1-2 in his first three games back.
Chara never missed more than a couple games at a time because of injury, and for the first time he was trying to meet his and other's high standards of him when he physically wasn't able to play like the defenseman who had been a First- or Second-Team NHL All-Star seven times.
"You have goals and certain expectations," Chara said. "Like, 'OK, I think I'm going to be there in a few games. I know it's not going to happen in the first game.' But again, it's one of those things that you might have a good game and then the next game or next day, you’re like, 'OK, symptoms are not completely gone. The flexibility or the stiffness is coming back.' But that's something that I deal with internally and I don't need to go out and talk about it. But I'm glad it's feeling better now. Hopefully we won't have any setbacks. But again, it took probably 10 to 12 weeks until I started feeling much, much better."
The Bruins are 8-1-4 in their past 13 games led by some timely scoring, improved defense led by the stellar play of goaltender Tuukka Rask (.949 save percentage in January) and some vintage performances from Chara. The Bruins will try to keep up their hot play against the New York Rangers on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN).
Despite a sluggish start after his return from injury, Chara entered play Tuesday 13th in Corsi-for percentage at even strength (55.6) among defenseman who have played at least 30 games, according to War-on-ice.com. Although his PDO for the season is 98, in January it was 101.6.
Chara also had four assists and a plus-1 rating in January. More important to the 37-year-old was the team success that helped get the Bruins into a Stanley Cup Playoff spot after they had been on the outside looking in for some time.
There's no way to understate how important it was for the Bruins to get Chara back in the lineup and get him back to playing his best.
"I think it's crucial for our team because I've always felt how our team plays is a reflection of how he plays," Bruins defenseman Torey Krug said. "He's a very important player for us. So when he's doing what he's doing right now it's very beneficial for the team and it makes the game easier for everybody. And I think he's enjoying that too. He likes that challenge and he embraces it."
Chara's return to form was about more than just getting up to game speed. He also had to get used to wearing a new knee brace. Although Chara wouldn't get into specifics of his adjustments, he had to make some changes early in his return to game action in order to feel like himself.
"Something that I felt needed to be done for the comfort and for the ability to skate better," said Chara, who has three goals and 13 points in 31 games. "I didn't make them right away because it felt like it would be normal but it wasn't. So after those adjustments I felt way better and much more comfortable in my gear again."
Fitting into his gear was half of Chara's path to a successful return. The other half was improving his ability to make split-second decisions in games. He said the Bruins training staff kept him in great shape while he was off the ice and whipped him into form once he started skating. But there's no way to replicate in-game reflexes during practices, which is why Chara was in the lineup in name only for a couple weeks after he returned. The Bruins couldn't lean on him to shut down the opponent's best player and couldn't rely on him to be a physical force for a handful of games.
Before the Bruins knew it, though, Chara again was the centerpiece of their defense corps.
Defense - BOS
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 10 | PTS: 13
SOG: 77 | +/-: 3
"The first, I'd say, three or four games, I wouldn't say he struggled but I think he really wanted to come back and help this team," Bruins coach Claude Julien
said. "And sometimes when you try and do too much and you haven't got … your game there yet, I think those two combined made it tough for him. But once he found his game, and you've seen probably him at his best lately. He continues to do all the great things that our organization, our team expects from him. He's hard to beat, defends well, moves the puck well. And his offense is coming right now from his shot or net-front [presence]. But he's been good for us. When you've got a guy like that as your captain you need some leadership and he's definitely given us that."
In the long run the time off might help Chara feel fresher for the stretch run and the playoffs. Time away from hockey also motivated him to stay in the NHL for as long as he can.
"You don't realize how much you miss the game until you're basically away from it," Chara said. "And for sure I love the game, I love competing in this League. It's the best League in the world. You compete against the best players. I think that the one thing that I only wish for is the health and not to deal with any other injuries."
Chara's most important task to deal with is battling the best scorers in the League. The Bruins' upcoming schedule includes showdowns with the New York Rangers' Rick Nash, the New York Islanders' John Tavares, the Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty and the Dallas Stars' Tyler Seguin, a former Bruins teammate.
Mentally, Chara said he believes he's as able as any defenseman in the League to shut down those top scorers and improve his game, even as he approaches his 38th birthday next month.
"It's something that you have to believe in yourself, you have to believe in your performances and abilities," Chara said. "And I really do think that my game is where it should be. You're going to always have an off game or plays where guys are going to score. That's why when you play against the best players they will make some plays.
"But I always try to be the best I can be every game and just give my teammates and my team a chance to win. Every time I do that I know we have a good chance to win hockey games and play well. So I'm going to still continue to work extremely hard and always trying to improve things that I need to improve and working on my weaknesses, things I'm still working on and getting better in the things I do well. I don't think that's going to change."