Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Gonchar just keeps on rolling on defense

By Larry Wigge

For Sergei Gonchar, there are more than good friends.

For five years, the Chelyabinsk, Russian, defender starred for the Pittsburgh Penguins and played in two Stanley Cup finals ... winning it all in 2009. Now, being a lead man on the Ottawa Senators, he must face off against the Penguins in the second round of the playoffs.

"I have a lot of good friends over there," said Gonchar, while smiling at the thought, but then ...

"At the same time, it’s the playoffs," he continued. "You put those things aside and just focus on the game. You want to win."

The series had gone Pittsburgh's way ... until a setup by Gonchar through Milan Michalek to Daniel Alfredsson, who directed the pass into the net for the tying goal with an extra attacker with 29 seconds left in regulation time. 

Then, Colin Greening scored the winner 7 minutes in overtime for a 2-1 Ottawa victory.

This has been sort of a rebound season for Gonchar, three years after he left Pittsburgh. Kind of a renaissance man. At first, it was a chance to play for a Canadian team. The 39-year-old defenseman had spent a lifetime playing for the Washington Capitals. The next segment of his career was spent growing up with a Cup contender in Pittsburgh.

"It was like a new page in my hockey career," said Gonchar. "Playing in Canadian cities is something that has always been special for me."

But ...

During his first two years with the Senators, Gonchar was off. Then came the lockout.

The six-foot-two, 206-pounder headed to the Kontinental Hockey League to play with friend Evgeni Malkin. The difference in his play has been outstanding. In 45 games, Gonchar was the slick puck-moving defender he has always been. He scored three goals and added another 24 assists.

With Erik Karlsson sidelined early in the lockout-shortened season, the Senators turned to Sergei.

"Gonchar has definitely stepped up to the plate with Erik's injury," Alfredsson said. "Overall, he makes smart decisions. With the additional ice time, he relishes that role."

"I've said this, and with a little bit of sarcasm, but I hate blocking shots all the time. I'd like to have the puck, I'd like to have skill on our line ... that can help our forwards," said Ottawa GM Bryan Murray. "For years, this gentleman and Nicklas Lidstrom are the two people that have provided that and make the team tremendously better."

With Karlsson back for the playoffs, Gonchar has taken a secondary step -- and made it work. He has provided six assists in eight playoff games.

"I've been in the league for a while and won a Cup, so I know what it takes to win it," he said. "Obviously, I've been in the league for a long time and, on the power play, I was on the top unit on the power play for many years so that experience will help out a lot, too."

But, Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma also credits some of the success that Kris Letang, a Norris Trophy candidate this spring, is having to Gonchar.

"How Gonchar plays his position, controls the ice, plays on the power play and even how he works," said Bylsma.

Bylsma said Gonchar was a tireless worker in practice when his career first started with the Washington Capitals. He would shoot hundreds of pucks before the regular skate just to work on his shot and that suggestion was made to Letang.

"Sergei wondered why he didn't see that in every player," said Bylsma. "Kris Letang benefitted from that, from a veteran guy. Not only how he worked and prepared, but also his demeanor and how he played the game."

During the course of this season, Gonchar has become the highest scoring Russian blue-liner in league history with two assists in Tuesday's win over Carolina, moving a point ahead of Sergei Zubov with 772. Only Sergei Fedorov has more points among Russian-born players in the NHL with 1,179 points.

Another thing on the 39-year-olds mind is the 2014 Olympics played in his homeland at Sochi, Russia.

"Definitely," Gonchar added, when asked if he feels like he could continue playing. "If my body allowed me. I get up in the morning and I feel I can do it. I still enjoy it.

"I would love to, especially when you think about it, it's the first ever Winter Olympics back in Russia. It's going to be something special. I would like to have a chance to play."

For Gonchar playing into his 40s is not outlandish.

"His consistency is unparalleled," said defenseman Brooks Orpik. "Look at his numbers, he's right up there with everybody." 

"He's the best in the league at what he does on the point on the power play," captain Sidney Crosby explained. "And defensively, he's just so well-positioned. And he's a great skater."

Gonchar is the son of Viktor, a welder, and Raiesa, who worked for the telephone company back home. Sergei grew up in the same town as Sergei Makarov. He had that pedigree to follow as a youngster. But, just before he became a teen-ager, Gonchar got a shock when his coach took him aside and told this wannabe forward that he was too slow and wasn't creative enough to play up front should switch to defense. 

Rather than protest, Sergei accepted the change -- and, while he wasn't exactly enamored with the notion of stopping goals, rather than scoring them, at the time, it turned out to be one of the best career choices Gonchar would ever make. And, oh by the way, he began watching Russian 5 defenseman Slava Fetisov a little more closely. That seemed to have helped a lot.

Obstacle? There's always an obstacle for a player to overcome to reach that elite level.

"What's obstacle?" Gonchar asked. "No one thought I could play defense. No one."

OK. So we were all wrong, right? So what about the turnaround, Sergei?

"It started in 2002-03, when Randy Carlyle was an assistant in Washington and he told me he thought I could help the team more by playing quality minutes against the best players on the other team," Gonchar remembered. "Randy and Bruce Cassidy came to me and said, 'We think you can do this. And it's doesn't matter what people said before.' "

After that, Gonchar began to handle the puck better around the crease and in the corners. He began to prefer the simple play, improved his positioning in front of the net and became a more consistent performer when faced with an odd-man rush. The ability to join the forward rush remains, the booming shot still haunts goalies, the passing accuracy has not wavered.

Getting traded from the Capitals to Boston at the 2004 NHL trade deadline. Fifteen games later in Boston and the lockout in 2005-06, the Bruins experiment was over.

Enter Pittsburgh and Gonchar's reinvention to complete defender under Penguins coach Michel Therrien, who replaced Ed Olczyk behind the Pittsburgh bench 27 games into the 2005-06 season.

He went from overpaid, underachieving, free-agent bust when Therrien wanted Sergei to take a bigger role with a very young Penguins defense.

"Good athletes like a challenge," Therrien said. "At least, that's always been my philosophy: put good athletes in positions that he has no choice but to perform."

His vision is the biggest thing, his best attribute. He uses that split second of time and space and finds teammates with the most pinpoint passes. And he catches opponents off-guard with those passes, which they think seem impossible to complete to them.

To NHL folks the idea of playing into your 40s may seem to be preposterous. 

But don't count out Sergei Gonchar. His friends on the Pittsburgh Penguins haven't. 

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