Gonchar provides steadying hand
For a guy only recently showered with local love - remember, Penguins fans tried to boo him out of Pittsburgh during his first months with the club in 2005 - defenseman Sergei Gonchar possesses a sharp sense of humor and an on-the-spot delivery.
His telling in early March of a story about his oldest daughter's pet turtle, which escaped last year from the Gonchar family backyard by burrowing out of a perfectly landscaped and enclosed pond area, had Penguins teammates hanging on every word.
"I've never heard of a turtle doing such a thing," Gonchar said. "I guess he didn't like living with me...
"He left after two months. 'Geno' stuck around for two years."
"Geno," of course, is NHL scoring leader and Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, who lived in Gonchar's house before purchasing his own pad this season.
It could be argued that Gonchar's greatest payoff on the Penguins' $25 million investment in him during the summer of 2005 has been helping Malkin, a fellow Russian, grow as a player and leader.
Malkin rejected that argument Thursday after the Penguins' first practice in preparation for their second-round playoff series against the Washington Capitals, which opens Saturday afternoon at Washington's Verizon Center.
"He's helped the whole team, not just me," Malkin said, specifically identifying Gonchar's repeated on-ice instruction sessions with second-year defenseman Kris Letang - again an occurrence yesterday, and one lauded by coach Dan Bylsma.
"He spent seven minutes talking to him," Bylsma said. "He brings that to our team. He has experience. He has knowledge. He can make other people feel comfortable.
"In some aspects, he's our secondary coach out there."
One the Penguins hope to keep around. All indications are they will try to extend Gonchar's contract, which expires after next season, at first opportunity on July 1.
Over the past four seasons, Gonchar has created a new hockey life for himself in Pittsburgh after an up-and-down start to his NHL career over parts of 10 campaigns with the Capitals. He scored at least 15 goals in six of those seasons and more than 20 twice, but still - for reasons Gonchar said he neither understands completely nor does he wish to discuss fully - Capitals fans heckle him at Verizon Center each time the puck touches his stick.
Then again, fans were hard on him during most of his first season with the Penguins, when Gonchar admitted he struggled in then-coach Eddie Olczyk's system. Today and two coaches later, Penguins players believe their fans owe Gonchar gratitude for helping them reach the playoffs.
The Penguins went 17-4-4 with Gonchar in the lineup after he returned Feb. 14 from left-shoulder surgery that cost him 56 regular-season games. Gonchar scored six goals and recorded 19 points over that span, including 15 points in his initial 16 contests.
"To be honest, I think everyone's expectations of him weren't very high when he was coming off that surgery," said defenseman Brooks Orpik, Gonchar's defense partner. "That's a long time to be off, but he stepped right back ... it didn't take him long."
"We missed him," assistant coach Mike Yeo said. "I think I spent the first two-thirds of our season telling people you can't replace 'Sarge' - not the things he can do on the rink offensively and defensively, or what he brings in the room.
"He's one of our best players and a leader."
Ironically, players representing the same organization that provided Gonchar his NHL opportunity are aware he could play a significant role in helping the Penguins once again end a hockey season in Washington - as they did four times when he played for the Capitals.
"(Gonchar) changes the complexion of their team completely," Capitals winger Brooks Laich said yesterday. "He is all over the ice, and you always have to watch him. ... He is a lot like Mike Green - just a big X-factor on the back line."
Green, who paced NHL defensemen with 31 goals this season, is a finalist for the Norris Trophy, awarded annually to the league's best blueliner.
Gonchar has won neither that award nor the Stanley Cup - so his 191 goals, 634 points and vastly improved defensive performance over the past three seasons (a combined plus-27) have left an appreciation void among non-players in the hockey world.
"He can kind of fly under the radar because he's so quiet and doesn't go looking for attention, but he's appreciated by every player in this room - I could sense that right away," said Penguins right wing Bill Guerin, who joined the club via a trade from the New York Islanders on March 4.
"He's always in control of himself, on the ice and in the locker room. He's the same all time, and a lot of guys respect that. If you find yourself in a pressure situation you can just look down the bench at 'Gonch' or look at him in his locker spot, and he's just kind of rolling with it."
Gonchar said he will roll with the odd mating call-like noises Capitals fans will shower him with in Games 1 and 2, because he'll roll with anything -- almost.
The line he drew yesterday was at Malkin's good-natured ribbing of Gonchar's card-playing ability.
"We play, and he never wins," Malkin said. "He gets mad. Ask him."
"It's the toughest thing for me right now," Gonchar said of losing to his protege. "We're going to work on it all summer so I don't (lose) all next year."
No. 1 line: LW Alex Ovechkin - C Sergei Fedorov - C Viktor Kozlov
Say it: Cup-winner Fedorov knows how to win tough playoff series.
No. 2 line: LW Tomas Fleischmann - C Nicklas Backstrom - RW Alexander Semin
Say it: Semin talks the talk but also walks the walk when healthy.
No. 3 line: LW Brooks Laich - C Dave Steckel - RW Matt Bradley
Say it: Laich could play on most team's second line.
No. 4 line: LW Eric Fehr - C Boyd Gordon - RW Chris Clark
Say it: Absence of LW Donald Brashear will have impact.
No. 1 defense: Shaone Morrison - Mike Green
Say it: Green never misses a chance to jump into a play.
No. 2 defense: Tom Poti - Milan Jurcina
Say it: Jurcina underappreciated in his fifth season.
No. 3 defense: John Erskine - Brian Pothier
Say it: Pairing not built to handle fast forwards
Goalies: Simeon Varlamov (starter), Jose Theodore
Say it: Varlamov looks cool beyond his year.
Extras: C Michael Nylander, LW Donald Brashear (suspended)
Say it: Nylander capable of providing offensive spark.
No. 1 line: LW Chris Kunitz - C Sidney Crosby - RW Bill Guerin
Say it: Only two goals between wingers in Round 1.
No. 2 line: LW Ruslan Fedotenko - C Evgeni Malkin - RW Max Talbot
Say it: Fedotenko and Talbot will crash crease for rebounds.
No. 3 line: LW Matt Cooke - C Jordan Staal - RW Tyler Kennedy
Say it: Staal arguably Pens' steadiest player over past two months.
No. 4 line: LW Pascal Dupuis - C Craig Adams - RW Miroslav Satan
Say it: Nice combo with Dupuis' speed, Adams' grit, Satan's skill.
No. 1 defense: Brooks Orpik - Sergei Gonchar
Say it: Gonchar brings out best in Orpik.
No. 2 defense: Rob Scuderi - Hal Gill
Say it: Scuderi is league's best penalty-killer.
No. 3 defense: Mark Eaton - Kris Letang
Say it: Eaton playing at career-best level.
Goalies: Marc-Andre Fleury (starter), Mathieu Garon
Say it: Fleury has won 18 of past 26 playoff games.
Extras: RW Petr Sykora, RW Eric Godard, D Philippe Boucher
Say it: Playoff-proven Sykora a nice hand to play.
A compilation of quotes from the Penguins and Capitals after their practices Thursday:
"He's a superstar. Me• Just like you guys."
--Caps left wing Alex Ovechkin , joking with the Washington media about Pens center Sidney Crosby
"Everybody talks about Sid and Alex. 'Geno' is the leading scorer in the league. He's probably going to win the (MVP). ... I hope what happens is (Crosby and Ovechkin) battle like crazy and 'Geno' comes in and goes over the top, because that would be good for our team."
--Pens center Max Talbot on teammate Evgeni Malkin
"It's going to be 10 days of what could be 15-20 year careers for these guys. We know they're all great players and will be great for a long time. What happens in this series - I don't know if it's going to change anything."
--Caps general manager George McPhee on the Crosby-Ovechkin series dynamic
"We joke about how crazy competitive he is. If I were (playing for Washington), I'd just leave it alone."
--Pens defenseman Brooks Orpik on past critical comments of Crosby from Caps players such as right wing Alexander Semin
"I could have said something else, but 'circus' came to my mind. 'Gong Show' - I don't know?"
--Caps coach Bruce Boudreau on his "Welcome to the circus" line from Monday
"He's got that good release and it's very accurate. You know he's going to shoot a lot. People say he's not looking to pass it, but he will - and he can pass the puck, so you've got to be aware."
--Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury on Ovechkin
"I think everybody had a bit of a smile on their face. Our guys did and I'm sure their guys did as well."
--Caps center Brooks Laich on teammates' reactions to learning the Pens would be the Round 2 opponent
The other side
A statistical comparison of defenseman Sergei Gonchar's playoff performances with Washington and the Penguins:
Team, years -- Games -- G-A-Pts. -- Best finish
Capitals, 1994-2004 -- 51 -- 13-18-31 -- Lost 1998 Cup final
Penguins, 2005-current -- 31 -- 3-20-23 -- Lost 2008 Cup final
Source: Penguins 2009 Playoff Guide, Yahoo! Sports
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