Gonchar set for MRI this week
TAMPA -- Assistant coach Mike Yeo, director of a Penguins' power-play attack that has finished no lower the fifth in the NHL each of the past two seasons, admitted before practice Sunday there is no way to downplay the advantage of defenseman Sergei Gonchar working the point.
"There isn't a better power-play quarterback in hockey," Yeo said of Gonchar, who leads all NHL defensemen with 111 goals and is second to only six-time Norris Trophy-winner Nicklas Lidstrom of Detroit with 431 points since 2000.
"The puck goes through Gonchar. When the puck goes up top to him, with his skill and vision, (opponents) have to respect it, and that opens up space for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. (Gonchar) does so many little things that nobody else does, things that you can maybe take for granted. But he's the only one I see doing them."
Exactly when Gonchar will next "do those big little things" is anybody's guess.
Injured Saturday on a hit by Tampa Bay forward David Koci in the Penguins' exhibition opener at Mellon Arena, Gonchar's left shoulder will undergo a Magnetic Resonance Imaging test sometime this week. He did not practice yesterday.
The Penguins will play Tampa Bay at 7:30 p.m at St. Pete Times Forum.
Losing Gonchar for an extended period of time - "just speculation" that general manager Ray Shero wanted no part of yesterday - would certainly make the Penguins' goal to repeat as Atlantic Division champions more difficult.
Six weeks ago, the Penguins owned the luxury of a suitable power-play replacement for Gonchar - defenseman Ryan Whitney, who scored 16 of 32 goals the past two seasons on the advantage.
Whitney is out until at least December after undergoing surgery in early August to correct a left-foot deformity. The Penguins face being down - for an extended period of time - two defensemen slated to take up $9 million in cap space this season.
Shero entered August with a defense corps eight-deep with significant NHL experience, including veterans Darryl Sydor and Mark Eaton fighting for spots among the top six.
Pending results of Gonchar's MRI test, Sydor and Eaton are now in that top six - at least until Rob Scuderi (bruised ribs) returns - along with Kris Letang and rookie Alex Goligoski.
Letang, the only right-handed shot among the group, and Goligoski each possess upper-level offensive skill, according to Yeo. Shero and coach Michel Therrien have lauded Letang's shot and encouraged him to use it more in his second season. Assistant general manager said Goligoski "certainly has the intelligence and on-ice vision to create. He's a smart player and makes intelligent reads."
Letang and Goligoski each said yesterday they would welcome the chance to fill in for Gonchar, if needed, and Yeo did not rule out either as a possibility.
However, there are indications Sydor may be the favorite.
"The years in Dallas when I worked the power-play, I never had a hard shot, but what I focused on was my (wrist shot) and just getting the puck to the net," Sydor said. "You want to just get the puck to the net, especially with this team, and let them do the work.
"Keep it simple and know what you have to do. That's the key for whoever is back there if (Gonchar) is out. I'd love to get the opportunity. I've done it for years.
"We have guys - some of them young - who can handle the job. But we're all hoping 'Sarge' will be OK, because he does that job better than anybody."Additional Information:
With injuries to defensemen Ryan Whitney, Rob Scuderi and Sergei Gonchar, here is a look at the main pairings from practice Sunday:
Category -- Players
Defense 1 -- Darryl Sydor and Brooks Orpik
Defense 2 -- Mark Eaton and Kris Letang
Defense 3 -- Hall Gill and Alex Goligoski*