RALEIGH, N.C. -- Zdeno Chara will turn 41 years old this coming weekend and is still the No. 1 defenseman for the Boston Bruins.
That, in and of itself, is a testament to Chara's fitness level and his ability to maintain a high level of play as one of the most senior players in the National Hockey League. He still leads the Bruins in ice time, averaging 23:07 of ice time per game, but the burden has been even heavier after his usual D-man partner, Charlie McAvoy, went down with a knee injury last week. Last week Chara topped 25 minutes of ice time in a win over the Red Wings that really wasn't his best, and he was a shade under 24 minutes in wins over the Flyers and Canadiens.
The good news is that his ice time dropped in the last couple of games, including under 19 minutes in the loss to the Blackhawks on Sunday when he took a high-sticking call in the final minutes that directly led to Boston's loss. And that's really the growing concern with Chara as the Bruins close within 15 games of the playoffs. It's about finding some rest for the soon-to-be 41-year-old in the final weeks of the season so the Bruins can minimize any chances of late mental and/or physical mistakes directly attributable to the significant burden on his shoulders.
It's something the Bruins are paying fairly close attention to at the moment with an eye on what awaits in April.
"We'll have that conversation when we need to," said coach Bruce Cassidy. "Zee is going to want to play, and he's going to want to play a lot of minutes. We already know that. It's what makes him a great player. But like I said before, if the situation allows us and we have that luxury, then we'll pick and choose what might be the best times [for a rest].
"What is he feeling? You always think back-to-backs [as a good time], but he could have a nagging injury tomorrow and maybe another game down the road is better. That is situational and we'll go from there. I think we've tried to keep his minutes consistent, and that's worked out in the flow of the game. Who we're going to rest is something we haven't yet addressed with the players because we feel like it's too early, to be perfectly honest. [When] we're a little more solidified down the stretch and really more comfortable with our game, then we'll start talking about that."
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During last spring's playoff series against Ottawa, a Chara delay-of-game penalty late in Game Two, after he miscalculated and threw a chip attempt over the glass and into the stands, led directly to the Senators taking the game in overtime. Chara topped 25 minutes of ice time in all but one of the six games in that series, and finished a minus-3 while Ottawa targeted him with physical play to wear him down and try to force some mistakes.
If the Bruins are to make a long playoff run, that kind of workload for Chara is going to be difficult to keep up while playing every other day. So it would behoove the Bruins to rest him as much as possible in the next few weeks. They have a giant cushion for a playoff spot, and really aren't in any danger of losing home ice to the Maple Leafs in the first round with a seven-point lead along with two games in hand.
With that in mind, it should be a priority to rest Chara, including scaling back his minutes in games at times, and it should also involve a possible healthy scratch or two in the final weeks. Maybe the Bruins sit Chara out one game in each of the two remaining back-to-back games or the schedule, or find some other way to get the 6-foot-9 captain his rest and relaxation ahead of a grueling postseason.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to resting Chara is Chara himself. He wants to play and wants to compete, and is wary that too much rest will dull his readiness for the postseason. It certainly sounds like a conversation will need to be had with Chara before he's willing to take a spot in the press box at the strategically-timed moments.
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"I think we are in a position where we still want to get better and we still want to climb in the standings," said Chara. "There is reason to still play for points. I'll be ready and obviously I want to play every game. That's why we are here and I enjoy playing the games. I love the games and want to play in them.
"We've done that [giving rest] in previous years with certain players, and I'm honestly not a big fan of that. You end up being without a game for sometimes a week and then you jump into a playoff game. Personally I don't quite like it, but I know the No. 1 reason is to rest some guys and make sure they are rested before the playoffs start. I just know it's happened in the past where you have 5, 6 or 7 days off before the playoffs start, and it's almost similar to the bye week where you come back and it's like everything is so quick."
The counter-point to that for Chara is that the Bruins will end their regular season later than everybody else in the NHL by virtue of the April 8 makeup game vs. the Florida Panthers thanks to a snowstorm postponement earlier this season. So there won't be a prolonged rest period prior to the start of Boston's playoff run, and that, as much as anything else, might be why some B's players, like Chara, might see benefit from a breather or two during the regular season.