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Gonchar's injury an opportunity for others

Tuesday, 09.30.2008 / 3:57 PM / NHL Premiere

By Shawn P. Roarke - NHL.com Senior Managing Editor

STOCKHOLM – Penguins General Manager Ray Shero is clearly a glass half-full kind of guy.

Tuesday, Shero had the unpleasant duty of announcing that his club's No. 1 defenseman had just decided to undergo surgery on his dislocated left shoulder, a decision that will sideline Sergei Gonchar for 4-6 months.

Yet Shero was ready with a positive spin as he stood in the lobby of the Sheraton hotel here.
"It's not the worst-case scenario, because in the worst case, he would have been out the entire season," Shero said. "With a 4-to-6 month time frame, we're going to get him back at some point. And when he comes back, we're going to have a spot for him."

Dr. Mark Rodosky of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center will perform the surgery Thursday in Pittsburgh; the same day Gonchar's teammates play their final preseason game, a friendly against Finnish club Jokerit in Helsinki.

Clearly, all eyes in that game will be on the Penguins' decimated blue line. Already, the team has lost its top two offensive options in Gonchar and Ryan Whitney, who underwent offseason foot surgery and is not expected back any time soon.

Gonchar, who was injured on the first shift of the exhibition season, won't be back before February, at the earliest.

The Penguins now have seven defensemen on their roster, but none is a game-changer like Gonchar or Whitney. Veterans Hal Gill, Rob Scuderi, Mark Eaton, Brooks Orpik and Darryl Sydor are all more known for their defensive games. That means that much of the offensive production on the blue line will have to come from Kris Letang, a second-year player, and rookie Alex Goligoski.

That's not exactly an ideal situation for a team that has grand designs of repeating as Eastern Conference champions this season.

"We're going to need all hands on deck," Shero said. "But we've dealt with injuries and adversity before."

Last season, Pittsburgh overcame long-term injuries to No. 1 center Sidney Crosby and No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. And while the loss of Gonchar is a major blow, it can't hurt any more than the loss of Crosby and Fleury for significant portions of the 2007-08 season.

"It's going to be a challenge for us, but it's something we experienced as a team last year," Crosby said Tuesday at the team hotel before going on a team-sponsored scavenger hunt. "Some guys will have an opportunity to have a bigger role on our team than they might have had before."

Whether Letang, who struggled at the end of last season, or Goligoski, a 23-year-old that has just three games of NHL experience under his belt, can step up to the challenge is one of the biggest questions facing this club as it prepares to kick off the regular season on Saturday with the first of two games against Ottawa in the Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008 series here.

"As a group, our defensemen are going to have to step up," Shero said. "That creates an opportunity for some players. Kris has played at this level. Alex had a good year last year in the AHL. We're going to give them opportunities, but we don't want to put undue pressure on them. We'll continue to evaluate our team as we go along."

"As a group, our defensemen are going to have to step up. That creates an opportunity for some players. Kris has played at this level. Alex had a good year last year in the AHL. We're going to give them opportunities, but we don't want to put undue pressure on them. We'll continue to evaluate our team as we go along" -- Penguins GM Ray Shero

Shero talked about making sure he kept his youngsters away from situations that could cause them to fail, but that may well prove to be impossible. Still, Shero says he is willing to go into battle with the team he has now and sees no immediate market for a replacement defenseman from another organization.

"I'm sure we will get some calls," Shero said. "This is the time of the year when (general) managers start calling around. But we have confidence in the group we have."

Still, all the confidence in the world won't replace the 65 points that Gonchar amassed last season. Confidence also won't eat up the tough minutes that Gonchar logged against the opposition's top forwards. Someone will have to step up on the ice and earn those opportunities.

Like Shero, Crosby is trying to look at the positive. He is excited to see how the void is filled.
"We all realize how important 'Gonch' is to our team," Crosby said. "He means so much at both ends of the ice and in the locker room. But we've handled this kind of thing as a team before. We've got to handle it again."

It will also be interesting to see how second-line center Evgeni Malkin handles the absence of Gonchar. Malkin relies heavily on his Russian compatriot as he becomes accustomed to life in North America. Now that life jacket is gone for at least four months.

What will that mean for Malkin, who is entering his third NHL season? Most likely, it means more responsibility. Malkin will probably be asked to play the point on the first power-play unit and he will also be expected to take up more of a leadership role.

"I feel great," Malkin said Tuesday. "I'm ready. It's my third year with the same team and I feel (comfortable)."

It seems that this optimism thing in Pittsburgh is fortunately quite contagious. 
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