"A lot of the onus goes on him. He said he could play and he looked me in the eye and said he could play. I got a gut feeling he really wanted to play in this one, in Game 7, against this team, and get the win."
-- Penguins coach Dan Bylsma on Sergei Gonchar
They got a big taste of that when he missed the first 4 1/2 months of this season following shoulder surgery. His return in mid-February coincided with their flight up the Eastern Conference standings.
They got another unwanted taste when a right knee injury sustained in the first period of Game 4 knocked the veteran defenseman out for Games 5 and 6. But after two practices, Gonchar suited up for Game 7, and his impact nearly was immediate.
Gonchar played just 15:06 -- far below his 26-minute average -- but his assist on the game's first goal set the tone for things to come. His shot from the point hit a body in front and went right to Sidney Crosby, who scored to trigger a 6-2 rout of the Washington Capitals.
While it wasn't announced until after the pregame warmups that Gonchar would play, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said he was sure after Tuesday's practice. That was Gonchar's first day on the ice since suffering the injury, but Bylsma said he had a feeling things would work out.
"Once he got on the ice (Tuesday), I had a pretty good idea he was going to play in tonight's game," Bylsma said. "Right when he started skating around, I kind of said this is all right. He kept going in the practice yesterday. The only hurdle to playing in the game tonight was how he was going to react to a night's sleep and having been on the ice once. He was fine this morning."
Gonchar went through a full practice Wednesday morning. Bylsma and Gonchar talked again after warmups, and that's when No. 55 was written into the lineup.
"I talked to Sergei and he was fully confident he could go out there and play," Bylsma said. "We talked about different scenarios, but he was confident he could play a full game as he had previously. A lot of the onus goes on him. He said he could play and he looked me in the eye and said he could play. I got a gut feeling he really wanted to play in this one, in Game 7, against this team, and get the win."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.