The Pittsburgh Penguins have been waiting for someone to shore up their defense and put the spark back in their dormant power play all season.
They're hoping he'll make his season debut Saturday night.
Five-time All-Star defenseman Sergei Gonchar could be on the ice for the first time since his preseason shoulder injury as the Penguins look for their fourth win in five games when they visit the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Pittsburgh (27-24-5) hasn't looked much like the team that went to the Stanley Cup finals last season, and one of the major reasons has been the absence of Gonchar, who was injured on a hit in the team's first preseason game.
Gonchar was second among defensemen with 65 points last season, and his 38 assists on the power play were far and away the most of any player in the league.
The Penguins were fourth in the NHL on the power play in 2007-08, converting 20.4 percent of the time. This season, that success rate has dipped to 16.3 percent - 24th in the league.
It's not a lock that Gonchar will be on the ice Saturday, but he was cleared to play as of Wednesday.
"It's going to be up to Gonch to decide his comeback," coach Michel Therrien told the Penguins' official Web site. "He looks really sharp in practice. No one's going to pressure him to come back. You have to feel comfortable and confident as well."
Gonchar should also help shore up a Pittsburgh defense that has seen its goals allowed per game rise from 2.59 last season to 2.96 in 2008-09.
Lately, though, the Penguins have been better on defense. They've yielded eight goals in winning three of their last four games, and on Wednesday they held Western Conference-leading San Jose under wraps. Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 36 of 37 shots and Sidney Crosby scored in a shootout to give Pittsburgh a 2-1 victory.
"In the last three weeks we've played better and sometimes the result is not always there, but you could see it's coming," Therrien said. "We just have to build on this game."
Even with Gonchar coming back, the Penguins are far from a lock to even get a chance to defend their Eastern Conference title. Pittsburgh is currently tied with Carolina for ninth place in the East with 26 games to play.
The team right behind the Penguins is Toronto (20-25-10), which has beaten Therrien's team twice, but the two are separated by nine points. The Maple Leafs haven't won consistently all season, putting together just one streak of three wins.
They've dropped their last two games - first a 5-4 overtime loss Tuesday at Florida after blowing a three-goal lead with 12 minutes left, then a 6-4 loss Thursday in Tampa Bay as they fell behind 4-1 after the first period.
"We're scoring four or five goals and that's not enough to get two points, let alone one" coach Ron Wilson said.
Toronto scores 2.96 goals per game to rank 11th in the league, just ahead of Pittsburgh's 2.95, but goaltending has been an issue all season. The Leafs allow an average of 3.62 goals, and Vesa Toskala was pulled in the loss to Tampa Bay after giving up four on 12 shots.
Toskala, though, is 3-0-2 in his last six starts despite having a 4.30 goals-against average.
One of those wins came against visiting Pittsburgh on Jan. 31, when Jason Blake's goal midway through the third gave Toronto a 5-4 win.
Right wing Nik Antropov has scored in all three games against the Penguins this season.
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