Upon the NHL’s schedule release, the Bruins circled Jan. 30 on their calendars.
So too did Zdeno Chara.
Nearly a month removed from signing with the Washington Capitals, the longtime Bruins captain will welcome his former teammates for the first of eight meetings.
Chara’s departure wasn’t necessarily bitter. The Bruins chose to go in a different direction implementing youth on the blue-line. Don Sweeney’s calculation has paid early dividends with a returning Kevan Miller complimenting a young core consisting of his fellow defensive partner Jakub Zboril, Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Jeremy Lauzon, Matt Grzelcyk and Connor Clifton.
Without Chara — and Torey Krug — the Bruins ‘D’ find themselves atop the league lead in penalty kill percentage (93.1) and shots allowed per game (22.9) while sitting fifth in goals against (13) and third in goals allowed per contest (1.86). They enter Saturday’s game with a 5-1-1 tilt.
Chara himself hasn’t looked too shabby in his new home. The 6-foot-9 ageless wonder netted a goal and an assist in Washington’s 6-3 win over the New York Islanders on Thursday. The Caps haven’t lost in regulation yet as they sit atop the East Division with a 5-0-3 mark.
Both teams bring momentum into Saturday’s tilt at Capital One Arena. With Covid restrictions, the Bruins may not have a chance to meet with their former teammate off the ice. They’ll exchange pleasantries beginning with the pregame warmup around 6:30 p.m.
Yet, even with the friendly hellos, plenty of Bruins admitted they’d encounter an awkward feeling when they see Chara in his new home.
“It will be weird,” said David Pastrnak, who could make his season debut Saturday. “Zdeno was such a big leader here. He helped me personally grow up as a person and as a player. I can’t thank him enough for everything he’s done for me.”
“It will be weird to see him in a different uniform,” Marchand said following Boston’s 4-1 win over Pittsburgh on Thursday. “But there are still two points to be played, and we have to compete for that.”
The business side of hockey prevented Chara from completing his illustrious 20-plus year career in Boston. His footprints from his stellar 14 years on Causeway Street both on and off the ice remain prevalent throughout the locker room.
Bruce Cassidy witnessed Chara’s significance to the organization firsthand when he came to Boston as an assistant coach for the 2016-17 season. He found himself in the head coaching spot after Don Sweeney axed Claude Julien in February. Upon earning an interim label — before becoming the full-time bench boss in April — Chara approached Cassidy to lend a helping hand following a tumultuous time within the organization.
Chara, Cassidy, Patrice Bergeron and the rest of the Bruins helped right the ship. The team went from on the outside looking in of a playoff spot on Cassidy’s first day as head coach to a Stanley Cup contender over a three-and-a-half-year span.
With a new approach to the daily NHL grind, Cassidy gained a plethora of knowledge from Chara.
“He’s a guy that helped me a lot when I got here,” Cassidy admitted. “I think he helped me more than I helped him.”
No doubt the two parties will have a feeling out process upon puck drop. The transition from meeting former teammates to competing for two points won’t be easy to start.
Chara downplayed such a transition during his Zoom call with the Washington press.
“I don’t think it’s going to be as much about me playing against Boston Bruins,” Chara told reporters on Friday. “These are two really good teams playing for two points that are going to be out there to grab, so I am going to prepare the same way just as I have been preparing for many years and many games.”
Yet, the Bruins don’t exactly want to get under Chara’s skin.
“You don’t want to poke the bear,” Marchand said. “He’s the kind of guy that when you’re out there, you’re an opponent. You know, he’s not going to have any friends out there. He’s going to play the game and he’s going to compete and battle. So I’m not going to poke the bear in any way…all I can do is skate away from him. Because if you’re within the reach and you’re in his grasp, you know you’re not going anywhere.”
Chara still has a soft spot with his former club. But come 7 p.m. Saturday, he won’t be shy greeting his ex-teammates with a few of his trademark body checks and wicked slap shots.
Tim Rosenthal serves as the Managing Editor of Bruins Daily. He started contributing videos to the site in 2010 before fully coming on board during the Bruins' Stanley Cup run in 2011. His bylines over the last decade have been featured on Boston.com, FoxSports.com, College Hockey News, Patch and Inside Hockey. You can follow Tim on Twitter @_TimRosenthal.
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