Chara focused on helping Capitals, not facing Bruins on Saturday

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So don’t bother asking the 43-year-old if he plans to continue playing beyond this season or what emotions he anticipates feeling when he faces his former Boston Bruins teammates for the first time, in Washington on Saturday.

“I’m where my feet are,” Chara said. “So right now, I don’t know what it’s going to be like Saturday.”

In his 23rd NHL season, Chara’s size 11 feet (and skates), along with his towering 6-foot-9, 250-pound frame, have fit seamlessly into the Capitals defense and their locker room after he agreed to a one-year, $795,000 contract as an unrestricted free agent on Dec. 30. The Bruins offered him a contract, but a likely reduced role, so he decided to leave Boston after 14 seasons as captain and embarked on a new adventure with Washington.

“I don’t really see this as a challenge,” Chara said. “I see this as an opportunity. … I think this an opportunity that I can join a team that has high expectations, a team that has certain beliefs.”

The Capitals are in win-now mode, with an aging core that includes forwards Alex Ovechkin, 35, T.J. Oshie, 34, Nicklas Backstrom, 33, and defenseman John Carlson, 31, and believe they have enough left to add another Stanley Cup championship to the one they won in 2018. Chara has been a welcome addition through some early-season adversity with injuries and Ovechkin, center Evgeny Kuznetsov, defenseman Dmitry Orlov and goalie Ilya Samsonov unavailable for the past three games in accordance with NHL COVID-19 protocols.

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Despite a depleted lineup, Washington (4-0-3) earned points in its first seven games, including a 3-2 victory against the Islanders on Tuesday, for the second time in its history (7-0-0 in 2011-12). Chara has one assist and is third on the Capitals in average ice time (20:08) in those seven games.

Chara began the season on Washington’s third defense pair but moved up to the second pair alongside Justin Schultz the past two games. He has been a stalwart on the penalty kill, averaging 2:59 per game shorthanded, and played on the second power-play unit the past two games.

“It’s exciting to see at age 43 just how much he still loves the game and to be around there,” defenseman Brendan Dillon said. “I was fortunate to have guys like (former San Jose Sharks center and teammate) Joe Thornton that think the same way, and there’s a reason that those guys are still playing and still playing at an elite level. I think right now, he’s come in, he’s been a huge add for us at the end of games, defending against top lines and how we’ve been able to roll six ‘D’ and therefore just have more fun.”

Chara said the transition to playing and living in Washington has been smooth. He found a place to live within a couple of days after completing his required seven-day COVID-19 quarantine and is beginning to feel at home.

“It’s been definitely been a quite busy 2-3 weeks, but slowly, day-by-day I was just getting a few things off the plate and it’s been good now, settling in,” Chara said. “The season started, so that puts you back on the hockey schedule.”

Chara knows that schedule well. Selected by the Islanders in the third round (No. 56) of the 1996 NHL Draft, Chara has played 1,560 NHL regular-season games with the Islanders, Ottawa Senators, Bruins and Capitals and 195 Stanley Cup Playoff games. He won the Cup with Boston in 2011.

“Once you go into that hockey, traveling, playing, practicing schedule, then that’s where we most feel the most comfortable with,” Chara said. “Once you’re in that groove, it feels normal.”

Still, it doesn’t feel normal to everyone.

“I have seen a couple clips (on television) and it is weird to see him in a different jersey,” Bruins forward Brad Marchand said. “He’s obviously been here my entire career and the last 14 years it almost seems like that’s where he’s going to be forever. I think it just speaks volumes to his character and who he is that he’s willing to make a change like that this late in his career. He wants to continue to play, no matter what that was going to take.”

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There have been some sacrifices. Chara’s wife Tatiana, 11-year-old daughter Elliz and 4-year-old twin sons Zack and Ben remain in Boston and have yet to visit because of COVID-19 restrictions. Chara said they are trying to figure out the best time and place for him to see them.

“I think anytime you’re away from your family or significant others, obviously my wife and my children, it’s not an easy situation,” he said. “But we try to communicate and stay in touch as best as we can with the technology we have these days.”

In the meantime, Chara has quickly impressed his new coaches and teammates with his play, calm demeanor and legendary workouts in the gym, one of the keys to a lengthy career.

“Watching him in there, putting in work is surreal sometimes, how strong he is,” forward Tom Wilson said. “Honestly, when he’s picking up weights that should be heavy, they don’t look heavy. It’s a lot of fun to be around. 

“I’ve found myself getting better just being around him, working out with him, preparing with him and he demands that from his teammates. And that’s a unique trait that a leader has, is being able to bring other people and make them better around him and I think he definitely does that.”

Though Chara is new to the Capitals, he already has become a valued voice in their locker room. Besides winning a championship, he won the Norris Trophy, voted as the NHL’s top defenseman, in 2008-09 and was named an NHL First Team All-Star three times and Second Team All-Star four times. 

In 2010-11, he won the Mark Messier Leadership Award for qualities on and off the ice.

So Chara’s words carry weight.

“He’s not a shy person,” Carlson said. “He’s not the loudest in the room … but he’s a leader. Everyone looks up to him and he’s certainly not just looking around trying to make assumptions about people. He wants to get to know you and to be a part of the process.”

Chara said everyone with the Capitals has been “overwhelmingly welcoming,” which has helped him get comfortable with his new surroundings quickly. 

“It’s been very supportive, very welcoming and I’m very glad and happy,” Chara said. “Now it’s kind of we are settling in and playing hockey.”

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