Gorman: Pens protégés still saluting Sarge
Sergei Gonchar stood outside the Ottawa Senators dressing room at Consol Energy Center, smiling at the suggestion that he played a part in Evgeni Malkin winning the Hart Trophy last year and Kris Letang being named a Norris Trophy finalist this season.
“I'm happy for both of those guys,” Gonchar said. “When I played with them, you could see the talent right away, the dedication — they both work hard, make sure they do what it takes to improve every day — so, for me, it doesn't come as a surprise.
“It was just a matter of time.”
The Penguins make no secret that Gonchar had much to do with the success of Malkin and Letang, two of the game's premier players at their positions.
What isn't as obvious is the impact he had on the core of the 2009 Stanley Cup champions.
“Gonch was a guy who wasn't very vocal but just the way he carried himself, he was such a respected guy just by the way he played,” said Brooks Orpik, Gonchar's former Penguins defense partner. “He probably wasn't even aware of it, but I think he rubbed off on a lot of guys. A lot of guys watched his every move, just how he carried himself, how he acted in certain situations and how he treated people.”
Gonchar was the calming influence, both on the ice and in the dressing room, for those young Penguins. It's worth remembering that they were on the outside looking in on the playoffs until his February return from a shoulder injury.
Since he left for Ottawa in 2010, the Penguins have tried each year to replace his veteran presence and quiet leadership.
It's no coincidence that they have had little luck doing so and, after being billed as a budding dynasty, have failed to make another prolonged playoff run.
Now their playoff march goes through Ottawa and Gonchar, still a standout defenseman and power-play point man for the Senators in what, at 39, should be the twilight of his career.
Gonchar led the Senators with 24 assists, including 10 on the power play, and ranked second with 27 points in the regular season. He has four assists this postseason, all against Montreal.
Letang marvels at how his power-play predecessor not only still is skating with the game's greats but also remains the same old Sarge: As in, still in charge.
“He's what — 38 or 39? — and he still manages to play the game with control,” Letang said. “He's managing the game. He's still good on the power play. He's still doing the same stuff that he was doing with us. That's why he's had success with them.”
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma credited Gonchar for being “a huge factor” in helping his fellow Russian Malkin adapt to language and cultural changes.
Malkin went so far as to publicly thank Gonchar, whom he considers a great friend more so than a mentor, upon winning the Hart Trophy as MVP last year.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby also is close with and fond of Gonchar, who was instrumental in helping Crosby and Malkin communicate and find common ground.
And the feeling is mutual as Gonchar takes pride in the role he played for the Penguins.
One thing you can't teach, however, is temperament. That's where Letang and Malkin got into trouble last year in the playoffs. Both have behaved better this year but still have a tendency to lose their minds on the ice every now and then.
That's where Gonchar's absence is missed most.
“Both of those guys have kind of a temper,” Orpik said. “Gonch was always so even-keeled. In the five years I played with him, I think I saw him get mad once or twice. Guys viewed that: No matter how high or low in games, he was really reserved and just went with stuff.”
Gonchar attributes that to age and experience. Whereas he was 31 years old and a 10-year veteran when he joined the Penguins, it's worth noting that Letang and Malkin are only 26.
“When you're younger, you have a little bit more fire in you, I guess,” Gonchar said. “Obviously all three of us have different personalities. Just the way they are, that fire, I'm sure, is helping them. My calmness probably helps in some way, too.”
Gonchar hopes to gets under the skin and into the heads of the Penguins stars throughout this second-round series.
“I'm not going to tell you all the secrets,” he said, “but, yeah, you can see it in all great players: When things aren't going their way, you can see some frustration. That's the way the game is.”
Spoken like someone who knows the game but didn't teach his Penguins protégés everything he knows.