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Zdeno Chara ponders what may be final return to Ottawa

Islanders defenseman Zdeno Chara (33) battles with Arizona

Islanders defenseman Zdeno Chara (33) battles with Arizona Coyotes left wing Ryan Dzingel (10) for the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Glendale, Ariz.  Credit: AP/Ross D. Franklin

Zdeno Chara hadn’t realized Tuesday night marked the Islanders’ lone regular-season trip to Ottawa. So, he hadn’t thought whether this might be his last game at Canadian Tire Centre, where he played for the Senators from 2001-06 following his first tenure on Long Island.

But the 44-year-old future Hall of Famer also didn’t dispute the suggestion.

"Yeah, it could be, you never know," Chara said. "I’m focusing on the present, where I’m at right now and that’s getting ready for the game."

Chara played his third game back in the lineup after missing three games as one of eight Islanders who tested positive for COVID-19. The last-place Islanders brought an 11-game losing streak into Tuesday night’s game but also a three-game point streak with two overtime losses and Sunday night’s 3-2 shootout loss to Chicago at UBS Arena.

"I was one of the last guys being added to protocol," said Chara, who tested positive on Nov. 22. "For sure, at that point, you want to be with the team and help the team and play. But we have to follow the rules and do our time away from the rink. But it’s nice to be back, having a full team back together. It’s one of the things we had to overcome early in the season."

Casey Cizikas remains the last Islanders player in COVID-19 protocol.

Chara, who signed a one-year, $750,000 deal after spending last season with the Capitals and the previous 14 – including one Stanley Cup – as the Bruins captain, had two assists and 27 penalty minutes in his first 17 games back with the Islanders. They initially drafted the 6-9, 255-pound Slovakian in the third round of the 1996 draft.

Chara’s slow start was one of the factors in coach Barry Trotz’s decision to break up his top pair of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock just four games into the season as he put Chara with the now-injured Pulock.

Sebastian Aho has been Chara’s partner since he returned from his COVID-19 absence.

At times, Chara has looked stationary on his skates but, then again, speed was never really his game, even when he was much younger.

"Age is irrelevant," said Trotz, citing Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, his former player. "Ovi is 36 and he looks like he’s about 25 right now. When I talked to Z, he had some options to sign with a couple of teams, I said, ‘Wherever you decide, you can either play or you can’t play.

"But he’s played pretty well. He’s not going to give you any of the offensive stuff that he probably gave a little bit more when was a little bit younger. But he’s got range, he’s got a stick, he’s got physicality, he’s standing up for teammates. He’s a solid defender and he gives us a lot of size back there."

Trotz, though, is not deaf to the criticism of Chara’s play this season.

"A lot of the stuff, I know the criticism early, our first couple of games was based on some optics," Trotz said. "It takes some of those bigger men a little longer to go. If you’re a bigger guy, it takes you a little bit longer to get the wheels going. Z’s been really important for us on the penalty kill, in the room, physicality wise and he’s been an even or plus player a lot more than some of our other guys."

Pelech leads the Islanders defensemen in the flawed plus-minus category with a plus-3. Chara is a minus-3 and Scott Mayfield is a team-low minus-12.

The Islanders’ penalty kill entered Tuesday’s game ranked a respectable 13th in the NHL.

New York Sports