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Gonchar inching closer to return with Pens

By Tricia Lafferty
Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2009

Defenseman Sergei Gonchar moved out of the red and into the black during practice Monday, inching closer to a return to the Penguins' lineup.

Gonchar — who is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery — traded in the red, no-contact jersey for a black one yesterday and competed in contact drills for the first time this season.

Yet despite his recent progress, Gonchar is hesitant to set an exact return date. His targeted return initially was March, but he could be ahead of schedule.

"Hopefully, it's going to be some time in February, but I don't know exactly when," Gonchar said. "It's one of those things you just have to wait and see. Hopefully it's not gonna be that long. At the same time, you don't want to push it."

Gonchar has been practicing with the team since Jan. 15 and hasn't had any setbacks. He said he felt fine immediately following his first physical practice, but will have a better idea of how the shoulder is holding up after a few more days.

"I might wake up (today) and my shoulder is so sore I won't be able to do anything," Gonchar said. "So that's why there is no timetable. It doesn't really mean much until we wait a couple days and see how I respond to those things."

Gonchar left quite a void on the ice following his Oct. 2 surgery to repair a dislocated left shoulder.

He averaged 22:55 of ice time last season, which ranked eighth among NHL defensemen. He's also missed on the Penguins' power play, which ranks 24th in the league at 16.4 percent. Gonchar scored eight power play goals last season. And he'll help the Penguins on the penalty kill, which is 21st in the NHL at 79.8 percent.

"We don't want to rush him, but it's gonna be up to Gonch to figure when he's gonna feel comfortable with the contact," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "It's good news to see him finally get involved in drills physically."

The Penguins currently have eight healthy defensemen on their roster, but Gonchar would add more depth and versatility when he returns.

"Anytime you get a guy the caliber of Gonch back in your lineup, it's only gonna help," defenseman Mark Eaton said. "He makes the power play go. He kills penalties and he plays against the other team's top guys so that's a pretty big trifecta right there. To get a guy back that does all that is going to help tremendously."

Along with versatility, Gonchar also brings consistency. He scored at least 50 points in eight straight seasons. The past two seasons, Gonchar finished second in the NHL in scoring among defensemen. Last season, the veteran recorded 12 goals and 53 assists during the regular season and he added a goal and 13 assists during the Penguins' run to the Stanley Cup final.

The Penguins can only hope that Gonchar can generate the same type of production and give them the boost they need to make playoff push when he returns.

"He's a leader," Whitney said. "He's very poised with the puck. He's good defensively. Obviously he's known for being good on the power play. To have him back, it's gonna mean a ton for our team."



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