The veteran Russian defenseman proved that Tuesday night at Mellon Arena in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final in a 4-2 win over the Red Wings that took Pittsburgh's championship dreams off life support -- at least temporarily.
Gonchar scored a power-play goal midway through the third period -- a slapper through traffic that found the five-hole between the legs of Chris Osgood -- to give the Penguins the lead for the second time in the game.
Max Talbot scored two goals for Pittsburgh and Evgeni Malkin had assists on the first three goals, while goalie Marc-Andre Fleury made 27 saves, stopping the final 17 shots he faced after Johan Franzen gave Detroit a 2-1 lead midway through the first period.
But it was Gonchar who contributed most to the win, a victory that puts his Penguins back in this best-of-7 series. Pittsburgh now has a chance to even things up Thursday night in Game 4 here (8 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio).
The mere fact that Pittsburgh isn't talking about that Game 4 with a sense of dread is because of the brilliance -- and composure -- of Gonchar.
Despite a balky right knee that has hampered him since suffering a knee-on-knee hit in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against Washington, Gonchar played a team-high 22:29. In addition to scoring the game-winner, he also assisted on Kris Letang's power-play goal that tied the game at 2-2 late in the first period.
But the game-winner was the signature moment of his inspiring performance Tuesday night.
"The timing was good," Gonchar said of his goal. "We finally we get a win; that's more important."
It is that humble, team-first attitude that makes Gonchar the emotional compass of this team.
"He's a real warrior," Pittsburgh forward Bill Guerin told NHL.com. "Honestly, he's a quiet guy; he doesn't say much. He lets his play speak for itself. Not just in this dressing room, but around the League, I think, there is a tremendous amount of respect for him."
Gonchar has had to battle all season just to be on the ice.
He missed the first five months of the season, rehabbing from surgery to repair a shoulder injury suffered in the preseason, and didn't return until Feb. 14.
Fellow defenseman Brooks Orpik said the whole team was inspired by the effort it took Gonchar to get back into the lineup.
"We would show up here at 9 in the morning for a 10:30 practice and he would already be here for two hours," Orpik told NHL.com. "He was getting here before the trainers because he was so committed to getting back here. He's just a real team guy. He does it in a real quiet way."
It wasn't long before another challenge loomed for Gonchar, though.
In Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, he crashed knee-on-knee into Alex Ovechkin, crumbling to the ice in excruciating pain.
"After the game, we thought he was done for the year, based on what the doctors were telling us," Orpik admitted.
Instead, the Russian defenseman missed just two games. He returned to play in a do-or-die Game 7 against Washington. He didn't play much, but his mere presence settled down the Penguins, who romped to a 6-2 victory.
He settled the Penguins again Tuesday -- this time with their season once again on the line. A loss in Game 3 of the Final and the Penguins were done. Climbing out a three-games-to-none hole isn't happening against the defending champs.
But if any of the Penguins were nervous about that prospect, the fear dissipated just by looking at Gonchar in his dressing room stall during the pregame preparations.
"What a leader," said Talbot, who sits almost directly across from Gonchar. "It's funny because me and Sid were actually talking about him right before the game. You look at him and he's just so clam, he's just so relaxed and poised. You look in his eyes and you know he is ready.
"What a shot he did tonight. He definitely got a huge goal for us."
Of course Gonchar got the huge goal. After all, isn't that what heart-and-soul guys are supposed to do?
Johan Franzen scored Detroit's second goal and he deserved it. The Wings were on the power play, enjoying an attack-zone faceoff. But Henrik Zetterberg was thrown out of the circle by the linesman for jumping the draw. Franzen stepped in and beat Jordan Staal clean to draw the puck back to the point. A few seconds later, he was in the right-side circle to accept a pass by Zetterberg and fire it home. It was Franzen's first draw of the game and just the 39th of the playoffs.
Pittsburgh forward Chris Kunitz knew that the Penguins would have to set a physical tone at home to help the crowd get into the game. So he went out and threw five hits in each of the first two periods before finishing with 11 hits for the game. After two periods, Detroit was credited with only 12 hits, just two more than Kunitz alone in that same span.
Detroit's first goal came in the middle of a line change. Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma tried to get his top line, centered by Sidney Crosby, out against Detroit's fourth line after a whistle; but, Detroit gained possession and began a line change in an attempt to get Henrik Zetterberg's line on the ice in a checking role. That change was only half completed when Ville Leino, a fourth-liner, centered the puck to Zetterberg, a first-liner, for a successful one-timer.
The second period of Game 3 was the first time in this series that neither team scored a goal. Each of the previous seven periods featured at least one goal. Also, the four goals in the first period were the most scored in any one period of the series. In fact, the first two games ended with just four goals being scored in each game.
Pittsburgh owner Mario Lemieux, who won two Stanley Cups as a player, dropped the puck in the ceremonial faceoff before Game 3. He was greeted with a thunderous ovation. Detroit's Marian Hossa, who played for Pittsburgh last season, was not so lucky. He was viciously booed every time he touched the puck during the game.
-- Shawn P. Roarke
1 - 0 PIT
1 - 1 Tie