Jason Chimera considered it a compliment. A player on the Montreal Canadiens’ bench had called him old during Saturday night’s game, and by hockey standards, he wasn’t wrong. The way Chimera sees it: If you’re 36 and still playing in the NHL, you’re doing something right.
But when he turned on the jets and sped past Montreal’s Alexei Emelin, seven years Chimera’s junior, he still got a special kind of satisfaction out of the goal that followed.
“You want to prove you’ve still got it, prove you can still play and prove you still belong in the league,” Chimera said. “It’s just one of those things that if an old guy can pass a defenseman on the breakout, they got problems. You show them who’s young and who’s not.”
The entire sequence perfectly defined Chimera, especially what came next. After a goal that was so him — blazing speed on a controlled breakout — in triumphant celebration, Chimera went airborne at the boards, both feet off the ice as he leapt into the glass with glee.
The Capitals’ oldest player is also their most spirited, and instead of slowing down, Chimera has done the opposite. His 10 goals and 10 assists through 34 games have him on pace for his best season.
“That guy is just starting the second half of his career,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said.
Chimera’s resurgence is made all the more surprising by where he was at this time last year, a late-December scratch by Coach Barry Trotz. In his first season with Trotz, his average time on the ice dipped to his lowest figure in a non-lockout year since 2005-06, and he had scored his fewest goals (seven) and points (19) in a non-lockout season since 2003-04.
But increasing comfort with Trotz eventually started to manifest itself, when Chimera recorded seven points in the playoffs. It’s that stability that Chimera has benefited from this season, both in a better understanding of Trotz and in playing all season with center Jay Beagle, the only duo that has been on the same forward line together for every game.
Chimera has also carved a place for himself on the second power-play unit, already setting a career high with three goals there this season. Chimera leads the team in power-play points per 60 minutes (12.65) for skaters with at least 35 minutes on the power play, according to stats.hockeyanalysis.com.
“I just think Jason is just in a better place, just in terms of what we were trying to do and what we were trying to get him to do,” Trotz said. “I think he’s bought into how I want to do things. He’s an exceptional skater. That’s always been a gift that he’s developed. For his age, he has a young body when it comes to playing the game at the pace that he does.”
Chimera recently eclipsed 900 NHL games, an impressive milestone on its own, but it’s that the “Ice Cheetah” has stayed a step quicker than the field that best speaks to his longevity. Speed is often the first thing to go with age, and the NHL has gotten faster since Chimera entered it on a full-time basis in 2002, but as Trotz said, “he’s always kept that little separation from the rest of the pack. Good on him; he’s adjusted to the game.”
In the sequence that led to the goal against Montreal, Schmidt skated the puck out of the defensive zone and banked it off the boards to winger Tom Wilson, who then chipped it to Chimera. Wilson said it was the fastest he had ever seen Chimera skate. Watching from the bench, Michael Latta said it was “like a blur.”
“I think he kind of went by their bench and said, ‘Who’s old now?’ ” Wilson said.
“Sometimes, I feel like he’s same age with me,” 23-year-old center Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “Maybe we should tell somebody to tell him every game like that, you know?”
In Washington’s dressing room, Chimera is best known for his youthful energy; he is a gregarious jokester and the team’s best singer (and perhaps the most willing to break into song). Latta joked that the mystery is whether Chimera is that animated at home, too. Kuznetsov sees a veteran who comes to work every day enjoying himself, who’s always early to meetings and one of the first on the ice for practice.
This run with the Capitals, whose 54 points have them sitting comfortably atop the Eastern Conference standings, has Chimera rejuvenated. Even though he’s an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season, he’s confident he has more hockey left in Washington.
“I’ve stressed that to them that I want to be here and I don’t want to go anywhere else for sure,” Chimera said. “I don’t think it’s going to be my last year here, but if it is, you want to go on a good note. But I don’t think this is my last year in Washington. I want to be here, and I couldn’t think of playing anywhere else.”