It was supposed to be a modern-day Willis Reed moment.
And, overshadowed as it may have been by the officiating controversy on the night, it mostly was.
Zdeno Chara, whose status for the remainder of the series was very much so uncertain after suffering a broken jaw in Game 4, not only suited up for the Boston Bruins in Game 5, he started. His name being announced as one of the defensemen who was set to be on the ice for the opening faceoff set TD Garden into an absolutely frenzy, with cheers so loud the press box was shaking.
The 42-year-old captain had 16:42 worth of ice time, registered two shots on goal, four hits, a takeaway and three blocked shots in a performance that seemed no different from what he’s been bringing to the lineup all season long.
“His injury is a little more serious than some, but he was medically cleared with some warnings,” said Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy. “He made the decision to play and it was inspirational for us; good player for us, but we knew he wouldn’t be 100 percent. We were happy to have him out there. It speaks a lot to his character and his will to play.”
The parallels to Reed’s memorable performance in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals for the New York Knicks mostly ended at the start of the game, however. Reed’s performance helped charge the Knicks to a series win, while Chara was unable to overcome both the Blues and the officiating to do the same.
The uncertainty around Chara’s status for the game also affected the Bruins lineup, as they were forced to dress seven defensemen – Steven Kampfer slotted into the series for the first time – and eleven forwards, meaning gritty forward David Backes was a healthy scratch.
“The reason we did that was we weren’t sure on ‘Z,’” Cassidy said. “How much was going to be able to play, how would the injury affect him and his breathing. So, we covered ourselves. I’m not going to get into every detail about all of our injuries, but we felt that seven was the best way to go to make sure that we were covered in case one of our defensemen wasn’t able to continue throughout the game. Up front, 11 (forwards), we lose Backes’ presence, he’s a physical presence. We thought we could move some guys up with ‘Krej” (David Krejci), maybe use (David) Pastrnak a little more, or (Marcus) Johansson, so we thought we’d be OK there.”
Chara’s status going forward is day-to-day, as is fellow defenseman Matt Grzelcyk’s, who has been out of the series since taking a high hit from Oskar Sundqvist in Game 2 and has been in concussion protocol ever since.
It would be surprising to not see Chara back out there with the series on the line in St. Louis on Sunday, however, and the Blues are well aware of the boost that will bring the Bruins yet again.
“You guys all know how tough Chara is and what a warrior mentality he has,” said Blues head coach Craig Berube. “Him playing tonight just shows it; broken jaw or whatever he’s got and he’s out there playing. Obviously, I think it gave their team momentum in the first period having him out there, but our team hung in there and we pulled out a gutsy win.”