Gonchar a key
By the end of Gonchar’s four-month rehabilitation stint from surgery, his Penguins were in 10th place in the Eastern Conference Standings with more losses than victories.
“It's probably one of the worst feelings I've had in my life as a hockey player, because that was the first injury in my life when I was out for such a long time,” said Gonchar. “I knew we had a good team, good group of guys, but unfortunately, things weren't going our way, and I didn't know where we were going to end up and how it was going to be. Then when I came back, I made a few changes.”
It was the Penguins’ Valentine. Gonchar – who hurt his shoulder in a preseason game – made his season debut Feb. 14. From that point on, the Penguins went 18-4-4, rising from 10th to fourth in the Eastern Conference standings.
“The regular season I think we were about a 500 team without him,” said Gonchar’s blue-line partner, Brooks Orpik. “I think a lot of the defensemen were pushed into roles that they weren't really all that comfortable with when he was out. I don't know, it's funny. He's a really quiet guy. Keeps to himself, pretty private person. But when he is in the lineup, he just seems like he has a really calming influence on everybody.”
Gonchar was notably in the lineup for Tuesday’s Game 3, scoring the winning goal on a power play, leading his team in ice time, matching up well defensively against Valtteri Filppula’s line and Darren Helm’s line.
Maxime Talbot and Sidney Crosby sat next to each other in the Pittsburgh locker room before Game 3, looking across at Gonchar on the opposite side of the room. Talbot and Crosby discussed how the Russian never got unnerved.
“We looked at him … And you look at him, and he's just so calm, he's just so relaxed and so poised,” said Talbot. “You look in his eyes and you know he's ready. He's been through a lot this year. It was a tough season. But as soon as he came back, I think it was a turning point of the season when he came back, the power play started going. And you know, he kind of gives you that confidence that, okay, I'm relaxed.”
Gonchar is 35. He’s from the same draft class that brought Kirk Maltby into the league; a draft peer of Matthew Barnaby, who now fires questions at Gonchar as a television analyst. There aren’t many left in the NHL from that 1992 class.
Gonchar was a 24-year-old with the Washington Capitals when they lost to the Red Wings in the 1998 Stanley Cup final.
He has built a career by being an elite offensive defenseman with good defensive skills.
Gonchar has had 11 seasons with 10 or more goals. Although his power-play work is what draws the most attention, Gonchar is extremely productive at even strength, having six seasons with 10 or more even-strength goals. (In contrast, Nicklas Lidstrom has never had a season with more than nine even-strength goals.)
But with the Red Wings struggling to kill penalties this post-season – Detroit has allowed 18 power-play goals in 19 games – Gonchar’s power-play work will play a key role.
“It's been a matter of just battling hard out there and finding ways to get pucks on net,” said Crosby. “When you've got a guy like Gonch back there who does a great job of it, we just try to get him the puck.”
The Penguins got a second dose of life without Gonchar in the second round of the playoffs. Gonchar was injured by a knee-on-knee collision with countryman Alex Ovechkin. Gonchar missed Games 5 and 6 of that series, but returned to help the Penguins win Game 7.
“For us, obviously, when he got hurt against Washington it was scary,” said Talbot. “But when he came back it was a huge boost. Because we know how important he is for our team, and not only our power play, but the whole team.”