BOSTON There was an unmistakable round of applause 34 seconds into the game when Zdeno Chara hopped over the boards, and an even louder positive reaction from the crowd 10 seconds later when the Bs captain first touched the puck.
Both were reassuring gestures from the home crowd that they still appreciated their 6-foot-9 Slovakian Tower of Terror. The cheers were followed by a spontaneous Chara! Chara! Chara! chant that gained in volume and enthusiasm.
Chara responded to the crowd adulation with a pair of assists and his typically well-rounded 25:54 of ice time in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres, but there was a moment that held much more meaning to both Chara and his teammates.
I thought he handled himself well today, said Claude Julien. With everything thats going on it hasnt been easy on anybody. We keep mentioning that we understand what the other guy is going through, but our guy did not deliberately do anything.
"So when you dont do something deliberate and you understand some people are accusing you of it, its not easy to deal with. The way he handled himself tonight, he deserves a lot of credit.
There was a telling moment during the nights first shift, though, as Chara was being showered with love by the home crowd, that was so comfortingly typical of the punishingly physical player. Chara sped after Buffalo offensive playmaker Jason Pominville as he carried the puck toward the corner, and the Bs defenseman continued with the play after the Sabres forward quickly released the puck.
Hes not going to change the way he plays, said Johnny Boychuk. Hes a big man and hes our leader. We dont want to see him change his game. I would never want to see him change his game because I like seeing that physical play of his.
Chara finished his check with a flourish and belted Pominville exactly the same way he has in more than 900 games before last nights tilt. It's the way hell continue doling out intimidating body shots for many more years to come.
He wasnt disheartened or discouraged by the Montreal catcalls, the ridiculous threats of police prosecution for a hockey hit deemed clean on every single level, or the legions of hockey voices like Max Pacioretty, Steve Montador and Daniel Sedin recklessly intimating that Charas turnbuckle hit was by design.
Apparently Montador knows whats in Charas heart and mind (courtesy WEEI.com) despite serving as nothing more than a glorified punching bagSteve Butabi look-a-like during his two-month stint in Boston at the end of the 2008-09 season.
I dont see any reason to change my game or my style of play, said Chara. Im going to continue to play physical and play hard. Thats my game and I dont see any reason to change.
In Charas case, hes fortunate that both the league and the majority of his fellow NHLers dont want to change, either.
Chara put all the criticism aside and played a solid, wrinkle-free hockey game against a highly motivated Sabres group skating at a very high level. He was more than happy to simply talk about hockey again.
Thats obviously one of those things I love to do, said Chara. Playing hockey is obviously my most important thing in life. To be on the ice thats for sure the most important.
I very much appreciated the crowd ovation and Im very thankful for that. It feels for sure great to be home, and to get that support from the fans.
The play on the ice was highlighted by Charas involvement in the second and third goals of the night including a clever rush toward the cage on the right side that attracted Ryan Miller away from the crease and opened the net up for Mark Recchi on an easy put-back score.
But the day was about much more than a single game despite the playoff ramifications. It was more about Chara reconnecting with his game after very nearly having it taken away via suspension. Then it was about learning afterward that perhaps the Montreal firestorm was losing a little bit of its steam with Pacioretty unwilling to agree with any police charges, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman essentially telling Air Canada -- which threatened to pull all its sponsorships -- to go pound sand if they werent happy with the league.
Chara knew the potential police investigation was far-fetched, but theres little doubt the Bruins defenseman wont be feeling all that safe and protected the next time he has to play at the crazed, frenzied Bell Centre a scenario that could very easily play out in the first round of the playoffs if Boston and Montreal face off against each other.
The towering All-Star defenseman hopes to gets a chance to square things away with Pacioretty sooner rather than later once hes ready to talk things over, and Chara can explain exactly what did or didnt happen during their violent crash.
Its just a nice gesture, said Chara when asked about Pacioretty throwing cold water on criminal charges for a hockey play gone wrong. Its something that for sure shouldnt go that far. Its something that is very unfortunate. I keep repeating that. I feel bad about it.
You dont want to see anybody get hurt and especially in that case, upper body and neck and head. We all feel bad. It doesnt matter, rivalry or not a rivalry, its something that we all want to see the guy recover. Im going to try to reach out with him and have a talk with him: either over the phone or to see him in person. But I totally understand and respect that now he probably needs time and space and to be around his closest family. Im sure when the time is right, Ill probably reach out and talk and somehow connect.
So now its clear that both Chara and Pacioretty have moved on from the turnbuckle incident, and picked up the pieces left in its wake. The Bs Captain is simply trying to lead his team toward the playoffs without any more distractions coming off three straight losses, and Pacioretty is starting the long road to recovery from a fractured neck and severe concussion stemming from the hellish collision.
Now that the players have moved on, perhaps its time for the fans, media, fellow players, police and NHL watchdogs to do exactly the same thing until the next big league emergency pops for a public roasting.