Zdeno Chara earning his captain's 'C'

BOSTON -- A team doesn't reach this point of the Stanley Cup playoffs without its best players playing at their best.

Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara is playing well right now, but he believes there's another attainable level, not only for him personally, but for his team as a group.

Chara was a man of few words after the Bruins' crucial 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals Monday night at TD Garden. The win gives Boston a 3-2 series lead with Game 6 on Wednesday in Tampa.

Chara wasn't celebrating. He wasn't thinking about the 60 minutes of hockey the team just completed. With the Bruins one victory away from their first Stanley Cup finals in more than 20 years, the captain was already focused on Game 6.

He is thinking about only one thing.

"Play better than we did tonight," Chara said. "Yeah, it was a big game. The next game is the most important game.

"It was a battle. It was really close. We fell behind again early on. We were just fighting to get something going. Obviously, they were too. Eventually, we tied the game and got that lead."

The Bruins struggled in the first period as Tampa Bay grabbed a quick 1-0 lead on Simon Gagne's tally 1:09 into the game. Nathan Horton tied the game for the Bruins at 4:24 of the second period before Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and Chara combined on what would be the winning goal at 15:56 of the second.

Chara, a Norris Trophy finalist, was pinching a lot more offensively and it paid dividends on Marchand's goal.

"That situation I decided to carry it on my own and put a little soft chip in and go after it," Chara explained. "It made them turn over the puck, and from that point we had some guys that had position on their guys, and then obviously Bergy made a nice play. Marchand was driving to the net and got rewarded.

"You always have to be smart about it. You can't be just forcing it in, but in the situations I just tried to pinch down low to create some offense. Obviously, I had some room for it and that's why I did it."

"We're happy with [the win] but we haven't accomplished anything with a 3-2 lead," Bergeron said. "Obviously, we need that fourth win and it's the toughest one to get. We know they're not going to quit; for us it's about finding a way."

The Bruins are one victory away from reaching the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1990. The last time the Bruins were playing this late into the season Ray Bourque was the captain. Since then only three others have had the "C" stitched onto their sweater: Jason Allison, Joe Thornton and Chara.

There has been many times during his tenure in Boston that Chara has been criticized for his leadership qualities, with some suggesting Bergeron should be the captain of this team.

It's no coinidence the Bruins are one win from the finals with Chara playing his best hockey in a Bruins sweater.

"He was huge," said Bergeron, who continues to be the Bruins' best player in the playoffs. "We didn't give up much defensively and that's what we need from him. Even offensively, on Marchy's goal, that pick was the reason why I got that puck."

This is Chara's fifth season in Boston, but before he played his first game here prior to the 2006-07 season, before he agreed to sign as a free agent, he insisted that he be named captain.

His teammates swear by his work ethic. Bruins coach Claude Julien never has a bad thing to say about Chara.

"He plays like that pretty much every night," fellow defenseman Adam McQuaid said. "He's a guy we rely on. He's our captain and he leads by example. He plays big minutes and obviously a huge part of our team and a huge part of our success."

The perception at times has been that Chara wasn't built to play in this town and for these fans.

Well, with the way he's played in these Stanley Cup playoffs, logging almost an average of 30-plus minutes a game, Chara is on the verge of earning a permanent place in team history. And if Boston somehow is able to accomplish its goal of winning the Cup, Chara will be the first Bruins captain since Dit Clapper (1940-41) to hoist the sacred chalice.

For those wondering, the Bruins used only assistant captains during their Cup wins in 1970 and 1972. Johnny Bucyk was not named team captain until the 1973-74 season.

Chara has a chance to do something special in Boston, and when he's at his best, so are the Bruins.

"Obviously we are," Bergeron said. "He's our captain, our leader and you can feed off a guy like him."

Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.