(WEEI) Zdeno Chara loves a challenge.
The Boston Bruins captain takes on all comers on the ice, pushes himself to the limit away from the rink by filling his mind with non-hockey knowledge, and respects those that compete at a high level in all aspects of life, sports or otherwise.
So his disappointment about not being able to play in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final at Carolina on Thursday because of an undisclosed injury may have been slightly diminished by what his teammates did without him.
Against the backs-against-the-wall Hurricanes, the Bruins turned in the most appropriate type of performance and punched their ticket to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final without their captain in the lineup. The Bruins' 4-0 series clinching win featured all the elements of their 2018-19 season: resilience in the face of an injury to a major player, an offensive outburst by the first line, a strong power play, and excellent goaltending and defensive play.
It was the type of challenge Chara would have loved to have been a part of, but also had to love watching.
First and foremost was the resilience, because if there were ever a way for the Hurricanes to find an opening after being dominated for three games in this series, you had to figure it would come through injury. So when Chara didn't get off the bus Thursday, you know the Hurricanes had to have been thinking this was their opportunity.
If they thought that, they weren't counting on Bruins' new shutdown defense pair of Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo, and their new No. 1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy being able to play even better without Chara than they were playing with him despite an increase in minutes. Krug led the way with 27:00 of ice time, followed by Carlo at 23:28 and McAvoy at 22:29. Krug and Carlo continued to turn Hurricanes star Sebastian Aho into a pedestrian, and the rest of Carolina's top players never got on the inside for scoring chances or got near the crease for second-chance opportunities.
It was a clinic in strong defensive hockey, aided also by Patrice Bergeron seemingly being in four places at once throughout all his shifts, and all four forward lines winning their shifts on a regular basis regardless of matchup. The Bruins got practice dealing with injuries during the regular season in the face of 252 man-games lost to injury. Losing Chara for a playoff game, something the Bruins hadn't dealt with for 98 games dating back to April 16, 2011, was as stiff a test as they've had, and they passed with flying colors.
Bergeron was a force defensively, and he and Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak lived up to their first-line designation at even strength and on the power play. Bergeron and Pastrnak worked their two-man game for both of Bergeron's goals, including the center's first 5-on-5 goal of the postseason. Pastrnak scored off the rush on a feed by Marchand. They combined for eight points, and it's hard to believe just two weeks ago coach Bruce Cassidy demoted Pastrnak to the third line. The best line in hockey is back in business and is four wins from the Cup.
Boston's power play, which ranked third in the NHL in the regular season and is tops in the postseason, went 2-for-3. Just as important, the Bruins tightened up and stopped giving the opposition as many shorthanded chances as they were getting power-play opportunities to score. Boston went 7-for-15 in four games against Carolina and didn't allow any shorthanded goals.
And then there was Tuukka Rask, who had his first shutout of this series, but maybe had his least difficult game. He made 13 saves in the first period, when the Hurricanes may have been able to crack the door open to a series-extending win. From there he was hardly tested as the Bruins broke Carolina's will.
After his 24 saves in Game 4, Rask finished the four-game series with a .956 save percentage. With goaltending like that, the Bruins can almost afford to sit more of their top defensemen (not really).
As the final seconds ticked down on the win, Chara waited by the door in full uniform (sans helmet) so he could skate out at the final horn to congratulate his teammates and lead the handshake line with the Hurricanes.
The man who has scaled Mount Kilimanjaro, biked along the route of the Tour de France, and earned his real estate license can't get enough of the trials and tribulations of life, whether he's in the battle or on the sidelines watching. The Bruins put on a master class in overcoming adversity Thursday and made Chara proud.
By Matt Kalman