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Chara returns to Boston focused on Capitals, not past with Bruins

Defenseman will put emotions aside after spending 14 seasons with them prior to signing with Washington

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

Zdeno Chara's return to TD Garden with the Washington Capitals when they visit the Boston Bruins on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN) will be missing something with no fans permitted to attend because of COVID-19 restrictions in Massachusetts. But the defenseman already experienced his most important Boston reunion Monday.

"I was able to see my family, my kids," Chara said Tuesday. "It was really nice to see them after a long time and be a dad for one day again."

Chara's decision to leave the Bruins after 14 seasons to sign a one-year, $795,000 contract with the Capitals as an unrestricted free agent Dec. 30 also meant leaving behind his wife Tatiana, 11-year-old daughter Elliz and twin sons Zack and Ben, who turn 5 on Saturday. Not wanting to disrupt their lives, Chara has been living in the Washington area without them, which he said has been the most difficult part of the move.

"We're trying to do our best with the technology we have available these days," Chara said. "Obviously with the FaceTime and phone technology, you can be in touch daily. It's different not being with them at home. Those are the sacrifices we talked about before I made that decision and, so far, it's been working. It was nice to see them last night."

Video: Zdeno Chara and Capitals prepare for 2021 NHL Season

Under different circumstances, Chara's family would be at TD Garden on Wednesday to see him receive a rousing reception from a sellout crowd of Boston fans, who did not get a chance to say goodbye or thank you when he left. As the Bruins captain, he helped them win the Stanley Cup in 2011 and reach the Stanley Cup Final in 2013 and 2019.

Chara is sixth in Bruins history with 1,023 regular-season games played and third in points by a defenseman with 481 (148 goals, 333 assists), behind Ray Bourque (1,506) and Bobby Orr (888).

"From Day One in 2006 when I signed with the Boston Bruins, I felt really connected with the Boston fans and the city of Boston," Chara said. "I developed so many great friendships and connections and we went through so many ups and downs together. We always felt their energy and support, being with us and behind us in those times and the best moment that we all can probably share is to bring the Stanley Cup back to Boston in 2011."

After receiving approval from the Massachusetts government, the Bruins will play with 12 percent capacity at TD Garden (2,108 fans) beginning March 23 against the New York Islanders, meaning some fans likely will be able to welcome Chara back when the Capitals are scheduled to visit April 18 and April 20.

But they'll likely have to wait until next season to give him the kind of deafening ovation he received when he was in the starting lineup for Game 5 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final against the St. Louis Blues after fracturing his jaw in Game 4.

"It would have been so amazing if we could have kind of relived some of those moments of the crowd being there," Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo said. "I feel like it would have been just as loud probably as that Game 5. … It would have been very special for him to have that."

That doesn't mean the games in Boston on Wednesday and Friday won't be special for Chara. He already played the Bruins for the first time since leaving in a 4-3 overtime win at Capital One Arena in Washington on Jan. 30 and scored a goal in a 5-3 home loss to Boston two nights later.

Video: BOS@WSH: Chara rockets slap shot through for goal

Returning to the arena he called home for so long will bring more emotions.

"It's going to be exciting to be back," Chara said. "Obviously we all wish to have fans at some point, hopefully sooner, at our arenas. They always make the games more exciting. But this time we're going to have to obviously wait and respect that safety and health is the priority. But yeah, it's going to be nice to be back."

For 14 seasons, going to TD Garden meant having to deal with Chara (6-foot-9, 250 pounds), who anchored Boston's defense and made life miserable for visitors. But with Chara, the oldest player in the NHL, approaching his 44th birthday on March 18, the Bruins planned to reduce his role this season. Believing he was capable of more, Chara turned down Boston's contract offer and signed with Washington. 

He's fit in seamlessly, averaging 19:24 in ice time -- third on the Capitals behind defenseman John Carlson (24:23) and forward Alex Ovechkin (19:58) -- while scoring six points (two goals, four assists) with a Washington-high plus-10 rating in 21 games.

"I think it's been exactly what we were looking for," Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. "His presence on the ice, his game on the ice, his presence on the team and in the locker room, there's been no surprises. I don't think that we tried to push it in a different direction or have it be something that it's not. I would say almost as advertised."

The Capitals (12-5-4) are 6-1-1 in their past eight games and lead the MassMutual East Division entering play Tuesday. The Bruins (12-5-2) are two points behind, making the games against Chara and the Capitals this week important to the division race.

Although returning to TD Garden will bring back many memories, Chara knows he'll have to put those aside after the opening face-off.

"I'm sure it's going to be a very familiar place and, obviously, the environment is something that I was very close with for many years," Chara said. "But I think we all have to realize that once the puck is dropped, you really have to focus on what's going on inside the glass and just perform."

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