Gonchar: 'It won't be easy' facing Malkin
Two friends had a lunch date planned for Sunday afternoon, but their favorite Japanese restaurant -- Umi in Shadyside -- wasn't open.
So, they adjusted. Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar have been doing a lot of that the past few months.
The biggest adjustment will come tonight at Consol Energy Center, when Malkin's Penguins play Gonchar's new club, the Ottawa Senators.
"We were talking about that at lunch," Gonchar said. "He's playing a new position (right wing), and I'm going to be playing defense on him at some point. It won't be easy. I can't give him too much room."
Gonchar seemed relaxed the eve of his first game in Pittsburgh since signing as a free agent with Ottawa on July 1. He is prepared for any reaction from fans tonight.
History suggests Gonchar will hear cheers at least once. The Penguins will play a video tribute to salute him.
He remembers watching former Washington Capitals teammate Jaromir Jagr tear up nine years ago after Penguins fans provided a standing ovation following a video-board tribute in Jagr's first game back since a trade during the 2001 offseason.
During training camp, Malkin offered Penguins fans advice on how to receive a Senators sweater-wearing Gonchar.
"Cheers -- a lot of cheers," he said. "He was so good for us for (a) long time."
Gonchar remains the Penguins' biggest free-agent acquisition since the lockout. For $25 million over five years, they received 54 goals and 259 points in 322 regular-season games. He added seven goals and 44 points in 60 playoff contests.
In between an admittedly "rough start" and "tough finish," the latter a Game 7 loss at home to Montreal in the second round that ended the Penguins' run as Stanley Cup champions, Gonchar was a model of consistency on the ice and calmness in the dressing room.
He played only 87 regular-season games the past two years. He turned 36 at the end of last season.
The hope Gonchar shared with general manager Ray Shero was for him to finish his career with the Penguins. However, the cap-strapped squad was never a serious contender to retain him after last season passed without significant movement toward a new contract.
Gonchar likes a lot about his situation in Ottawa, even though the Senators have as many wins as power-play goals -- one apiece. He raved about the veteran leadership of right wing Daniel Alfredsson and the energy that comes with playing in a Canadian city.
Still, Gonchar admitted he had "a special thing" with the Penguins -- especially Malkin.
"It's kind of normal between us now," Gonchar said. "He's grown into his own man. He's doing his own thing. That's growing up. He's maturing. We don't see each other every day, so now when he calls, he asks, 'How are the kids?' We talk about hockey, but not as much.
"The toughest part for me, probably, was leaving my friends behind. They're still friends. I've played against old teams before. You kind of want to pass to them."