Zdeno Chara may be seeing his skating and his athletic gifts decline as he powers through his 23rd season in the NHL. But the 44-year-old Capitals defenseman sure as hell still has his tremendous size, and his unmatched ability to intimidate, and he’s put both to exciting use this month against the Islanders’ Matt Martin as part of Washington’s ongoing race to win the East Division.
In this odd season where teams only get to play a handful of other opponents, familiarity has indeed bred contempt between the Isles and the Caps, as they’ve now crossed paths five times just since the beginning of the month. Even by the end of their April 1 game (an Isles blowout win), Garnet Hathaway and Ross Johnston both got tossed right before they could start a fight, and then in the dying seconds, Chara and Martin squared off as the Caps veteran tried his best to rain down haymakers on his opponent, who was 13 years younger and five inches shorter.
That was the third time in their careers that Chara and Martin dropped the gloves, but it would not be the last. On Tuesday night, in the middle of what turned out to be a big 1-0 win for the Caps, Chara played the role of old-school enforcer after Martin smashed Michael Raffl into the boards from behind.
Raffl would apparently be fine and end up staying in the game, but Chara’s protective instincts kicked in immediately. He challenged Martin to a duel, politely allowed his foe to assume the fighting position, and then landed as many rights as he could, one after the other, until officials intervened.
According to NBC Sports, Chara is the oldest man to ever earn a fighting major in the NHL. And according to my own research, the man whose mark he just broke was none other than the legend Tim Horton, who had his last fight when he was 21 days younger than Chara was yesterday.
That record is worth a brief digression. The first guy I thought of who might have challenged him there was Chris Chelios, who it turns out fought his last bout at 41 years old in 2003. Barry, who’s editing this (hi!) [Ed. note: hi.], couldn’t believe it wasn’t Gordie Howe, but Howe’s reputation as one of the toughest hockey players didn’t actually translate into a bunch of fighting majors. Howe only dropped the gloves 22 times in his career, and had his last fight at age 38, in 1967, then never fought in his WHA career. (He did, however, in his victory lap with Hartford in the NHL in 1980, catch a game misconduct in one of his final appearances, reportedly for knocking over a linesman while going for the puck.) The “Gordie Howe Hat Trick”—a goal, an assist, and a fight—was actually only achieved by its namesake twice in his decades-long career.
“The Gordie Howe hat trick should really be a goal, an assist and a cross-check to the face. That might be more accurate,” his son Marty once said.
Getting back to this blog, Chara has not actually picked up a goal or an assist in any Caps game since March 19, but his untamed willingness to do the dirty work of sticking up for his teammates is providing a boost all the same.
“It was awesome. That’s Zee though,” Caps coach Peter Laviolette said after last night’s fight. “I remember when we talked this summer. He said, I’m coming in here for a lot of different reasons but I’m going to help play tough and protect this team. That’s just the type of person he is. He didn’t like the hit. He went right after it.
“Our guys, everybody, we’re all much appreciative that he jumps in there like that and take care of things. It was great by him.”