BOSTON — As each Bruins defenseman goes down, he seems to grow taller and taller.
The program lists Zdeno Chara at 6-9. Yet when Claude Julien was forced to start the Eastern Conference semifinals with three rookie defensemen because of injury, Chara looked to be at least 6-11 during the first period of this 3-2 Boston overtime victory against the Rangers.
By the time that Taylor Pyatt had splattered John Boychuk face first into the glass early in the second period and the Bruins were suddenly down another D, Chara had grown to 7-2. And when he put a 50-foot slap shot past the seemingly impregnable Henrik Lundquvist at 12:23 of the middle period, yes, surely he had grown to 7-7.
Fitting numbers, perhaps, because no defenseman has been more important to the Bruins since No. 77. Raymond Bourque used to step on the ice at the old Boston Garden each spring and never come off.
With the Bruins' defense depleted with the loss of Dennis Seidenberg [lower body injury], Andrew Ference [lower body injury] and Wade Redden [undisclosed], Chara had been called on to play a playoff career-high 35:46 on 38 shifts in the all-time comeback victory against Toronto in Game 7 Monday night. It was a Herculean effort. Along with Milan Lucic and Patrice Bergeron, Chara refused to allow the Bruins' season to end. How many greater comebacks in Boston single-game sports history had there ever been? Maybe the 1986 ALCS by the Red Sox on the Angels? Maybe none?
Ference and Redden had been scratched from Game 7. Seidenberg was injured in his second shift of the game and played only 37 seconds. It turned out that Chara was only warming up because he played 38:02 on Thursday night. He played brilliantly.
Yet here's the crazy part. By the time the Little Irritant, Brad Marchand, had tucked in the winning goal at 15:40 of overtime, all those defensive kids around the giant defenseman had proved they were all right, too.
In Game 7 against the Leafs, rookie Matt Bartkowski, playing in only second his NHL playoff game, scored his first NHL goal. And there he was, flattening Rick Nash in the third period in this game and logging major minutes.
Although he has struggled mightily in the playoffs, Nash is still considered the Rangers' primary goal-scoring weapon and Chara obviously has been charged by Julien with containing him. After being taken to the dressing room briefly, Boychuk bounced right back. Still, Bartkowski played 26:42, fellow rookie Dougie Hamilton 20:45 and even Torey Krug, who had just been called up from the AHL this week, played 16:41 on 23 shifts.
Hamilton was the old hand. He had three games of playoff experience entering the night, Bartkowski had the two. Krug was making his maiden NHL playoff voyage. And, sure enough, just when the Bruins looked to be in huge trouble because of two Rangers goals in 16 seconds — one with only 1.3 seconds left in the second period — there was Krug stepping inside the outer rim of the left faceoff circle and driving a slap shot past Lundqvist on the glove side at 2:55 for — what else? — his first NHL goal.
There had been so much gnashing of teeth heading into the game about the Bruins' defense. So much "Nashing" of teeth over what Nash and some others might do. Well, as Chara seemed to grow and grow in size, Bruins' young defensemen grew alongside Chara and Boychuk.
Zdeno is now averaging 30 minutes per playoff game, the most among defensemen in the playoffs. And the fear, of course, is that he will wear down. Or will he?
"We know Zdeno can take a lot of minutes, he's got the body, he's got the frame, he's got the conditioning to be able to do that," Julien had said leading into the series. "But at the same time, you also have to utilize your players and have some trust in them. How much you use them obviously depends on how well they're playing, but it certainly won't be because we're making them nervous."
Just about every spring, as some hot goalie starts throwing zeros up on the scoreboard, the name of George Hainsworth pops up. The Montreal goaltender had an incredible 270-minute, 8-second shutout sequence in the 1930 playoffs. He allowed a goal by the Rangers' Murray Murdoch in the semifinals and did not allow another one until the Bruins' Eddie Shore scored in the finals.
Coming off back-to-back shutouts to finish off the Washington Capitals and extending that sequence to better than 152 minutes, Henrik Lundqvist seemed like just the guy who could make a real run at Hainsworth's record. Lundqvist stopped all 11 shots he faced in the first period and was systematically making his way through the second period. He made a nifty glove save from the left point ticketed for the far corner by Chara at 10:12 of the middle period. Yet just when he looked impregnable, Chara's shot from the deep slot hit Lundqvist's right pad and spun over the red line for a 1-0 Bruins lead.
The Rangers struck back with only 1.3 seconds left in the second period. It was the kind of crushing goal that can turn a series. Certainly it was the kind of goal that would make Bruins fans turn away in disgust. Tyler Seguin, criticized for his lack of production thus far in the playoffs, certainly didn't gain any more admirers as he failed to clear the puck out of the defensive zone, allowing a buzzer-beating slapper from the left boards by Ryan McDonough. Derick Brassard was screening Tuuka Rask and — boom — it was in the net. Julien, of course, could be second-guessed by having Seguin out there in the first place.
It suddenly would grow worse for the Bruins when Derek Stepan made Rask look bad with a wrist shot through the pads only 14 seconds into the third period. The place went momentarily quiet. It was not a good omen.
That all changed when Krug scored and suddenly anything was possible. It got crazy. Lundqvist made huge stops on Daniel Paille and David Krejci. Rask made a huge stop on Brassard. Boychuk drove one off the post with less than a second left in regulation. Boychuk hit another post in overtime. The Bruins ran up eight shots on an overtime power play. They dominated the extra period. And then they beat Lundqvist one more time.