The long and the short of it is the Boston Bruins wouldn’t be three victories away from claiming the Stanley Cup without the smarts and steadiness of 6-foot-9 defenseman Zdeno Chara, the NHL’s biggest player and among its oldest at age 42, or without the tenacity of 5-9 defenseman Torey Krug, whose drive to prove his value inspired him to deliver a helmet-less hit Monday night that triggered echoes of “the Big Bad Bruins” of the early 1970s.
Chara played 19 minutes 38 seconds in the Bruins’ 4-2 comeback victory over the St. Louis Blues in the opener of the Cup Final, contributing an assist on the winning goal, two hits and two blocked shots. His block of a blistering shot by Vladimir Tarasenko cut his left arm badly enough for him to require stitches, but he said he’s fine and will play Wednesday night in Game 2.
Chara and his teammates had a sluggish start Monday but collectively ramped up their pace and physicality after falling behind 2-0 in the second period. Chara was never a speedster, but through careful eating — he credits a plant-based diet with improving his health — and rigorous workouts that include tips from power skating and figure skating coaches, he’s able to keep up with players half his age.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that the game got a lot faster than the late ’90s,” he said. “I think that if you continue to work on your game, you work hard to get better, you can play a long time and play any type of game.”
“He’s a smart guy, he’s been around a long time, he uses that long reach and gets in the way. It’s just his determination more than anything and his work ethic. It’s why he’s still playing.”
Blues center Oskar Sundqvist, 25, marveled at Chara’s wingspan and positioning. “He’s tough to get around,” Sundqvist said. “But I still think we need to do a better job with getting pucks behind him and make him turn as much as possible.”
Center Ryan O’Reilly said the Blues plan to be tougher on Chara by “forcing him to play a rough, skating game where he’s got to turn a lot.” Good idea, but their execution there — and everywhere — must be better if they’re going to end the Bruins’ playoff winning streak at eight games.
Krug had no points in his 25:24 of ice time Monday, but he woke up the TD Garden and became a social media star with his jarring hit on Blues forward Robert Thomas in the third period. It happened after Krug got into a wrestling match with Blues forward David Perron in the Bruins’ end.
Krug became angry when Perron pulled his helmet off, but Perron went off on a line change and Krug could only take a number for later. Krug then dashed up ice, hair flying in the breeze, a sight that probably won’t be duplicated next season because NHL general managers have proposed requiring players to go to the bench when their helmet comes off.
“I thought there would be a chance at an offensive opportunity just being the second wave of attack,” he said. When Thomas played the puck, Krug leveled him with an open-ice hit. “I wasn’t going to do anything stupid and take a penalty and put our team in any sort of jeopardy. But luckily the puck went to a dead spot on the ice where you can make a hit like that,” Krug said.
Fortunately, Thomas wasn’t hurt. Nor was Krug. “First and foremost, you want to take care of your melon. You worry about it, but you try and do it safely,” he said.
The crowd approved. So did teammate Brad Marchand, who long ago loaned Krug a numbered T-shirt that Krug still wears beneath his jersey. “They’re trying to make it flag hockey out there, so it’s not often you see that, but it’s fun when you do,” Marchand said.
Coach Bruce Cassidy echoed that. “I thought it was great. Those are memorable moments,” he said. “I’m a fan at heart, so if you see some stuff that’s a little bit old-school, it’s good for the game as long as nothing dangerous happens.”
Krug finished off the play by staring down Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington before skating away. “His pupils were pretty big. I don’t know if he’s on something, but he was pretty fired up,” Binnington said Tuesday. “It was a big hit, big play, and the rink was excited. It was loud. It’s a fun atmosphere to play in.”
Krug reveled in the noise and excitement. More than that, he savored the chance to showcase the wide scope of his game. “The narrative of my career for a long time was being an offensive guy, a one-way street,” he said. “Even after this round, I’m still going to have people doubting me. So you just try to play the correct way. That’s been instilled in me from Day One, and not only as a player growing up but the day I stepped in this organization, taking a lot of pride on both sides of the puck.”
In what might be the ultimate compliment from a traditionally blue-collar, lunch pail-mentality team, Marchand called Krug “Little Bad Bruin.” Tall or short, these Bruins are getting the job done.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen