Stumbling Penguins missing Gonchar
Of all the popular theories as to why the Penguins have lost 10 of 15 games in regulation, including the past four, perhaps center Jordan Staal's assessment makes the most sense.
"We don't really know what's going on," Staal said Sunday after an optional practice at Mellon Arena. "That's definitely got to be one of the most frustrating parts, when you don't know how to fix it."
Maybe what separates these Penguins from the group that last season came within two wins of the Stanley Cup are still-weak ligaments in the left shoulder of a soft-spoken defenseman whose absence has created a leadership black hole that is threatening to swallow a young nucleus — not to mention this once-promising season.
"It's tough times right now," goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. "Something's missing. I don't know what."
Privately, other players do know what — or who — is missing, but ...
"There is no timetable," veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar said yesterday of his potential return from early-October surgery to correct a left shoulder separation. "We don't know how the ligaments in my shoulder are healing, and if I would (say) any time, I'd not be telling the truth.
"I'll see the doctor next week, and he'll check me out, and we'll take the next step forward. Until then, everything is going how it should. But it needs time."
Time, as Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has reminded of late, remains on the Penguins' side. Their game tonight at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers is only No. 40 on the season.
Of course, only eight teams will make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, and the Penguins, as of yesterday, weren't in that group.
Clearly, they miss Gonchar, who finished last season tops among NHL defensemen in goals (111) and second in points (431) since 2000.
He has not played this season. He was injured in the preseason opener. The Penguins are optimistic he will return in March, though he has yet to receive physicians' clearance to even shoot pucks.
No matter. His return could be just the power boost the Penguins need to secure a playoff berth and the chance to defend their Eastern Conference title.
With Gonchar, the Penguins finished no lower that sixth in each of the past three seasons on the power play, scoring a combined 265 goals on 1,336 changes for a 19.8-percent efficiency rate. Without him, the Penguins awoke yesterday rated 19th on the power play at 17.2 percent. They are 11 for 63 on this 5-10-0 stretch.
"Nobody in the world can run a power play like 'Sarge,' " right wing Petr Sykora said in October. "I've watched him for years. He's absolutely the best."
He is also the Penguins' "rock," defenseman Rob Scuderi said in October.
Added defenseman Brooks Orpik in September: "He's not a guy that says a whole lot, but there is nobody in this room that commands more respect."
That includes Crosby, whose frustrations on various fronts appear at all all-time high, and NHL scoring leader Evgeni Malkin, who has only two points in six games.
Gonchar, a long-standing alternate captain, has provided a dressing room filled with young players gravitas with his calm demeanor and oft-stoic professionalism. He can see this team is searching for leadership and knows players such as Crosby, Malkin and defenseman Ryan Whitney won't gain it overnight.
"It's obviously tough because the guys are learning it right now," Gonchar said. "These guys are quick learners, but they're going through some (bad) stuff, and they're learning how to deal with it by themselves for the first time.
"It's hard, but it's also part of growing from a young player to a veteran. You have to learn how to battle through. I just wish I could help right now."
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