When you are talking about the offense of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the conversation almost always comes back to superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin -- and rightly so. But even with all of that firepower, the Penguins' power play was noticeably inept for the first 4 1/2 months of the season. Not so strangely, one key player was missing until Feb. 14 -- veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who dislocated his left shoulder in the team's first preseason game on Sept. 20.
On Tuesday night in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, it was Gonchar who broke a 2-2 tie with a booming slap shot at 10:29 of the third period to power the Penguins to a 4-2 victory over Detroit to cut the Red Wings' lead in the series to two games to one.
"When you're on the point on the power play you have to be smart about what you do back there," Gonchar explained. "I saw Bill Guerin setting a perfect screen in front of Chris Osgood, so I stepped into one, trying to pick the corner of the net."
A second later, the Penguins were ahead to stay.
"Biggest goal of my career," the 34-year-old defenseman from Chelyabinsk, Russia, said. "I've had a lot of success but this is a goal ... in the Stanley Cup Final ... a game-winning goal ... how could it be bigger?"
Gonchar admitted that he was restless, helpless, out of his mind when the Penguins were struggling to play .500 hockey before his return -- which came one game before Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien as coach on Feb. 15.
"I've never felt worse in my career, watching my team struggle, watching the power play struggle, knowing in my mind that I could help," Gonchar said. "I was so anxious to get back in the lineup. I probably wasn't 100 percent when I came back, but I was driving the doctor crazy -- wanting to play.
"You should have seen me watching the games while I was hurt. I'd be at the arena or watching on TV and I'd be nervously moving from side to side."
Gonchar's return has been a big boost for the Pens' power-play unit.
"When you've got a guy like Gonch out there with the puck, you feel pretty good on the power play," Guerin said. "He always seems to get his shot through ... and there's no one better at picking a corner like he did on that one."
Gonchar has been a quarterback of the best kind on some pretty good power plays in Washington and now Pittsburgh. He is playing in his third Stanley Cup Final -- he faced Detroit while with Washington in 1997 and again with Pittsburgh in each of the last two years.
In Game 3, Gonchar played 22:29. He had only one shot, one hit and two blocked shots, but on the power play he was essential -- helping to set up Kris Letang's game-tying power-play goal with 4:03 left in the first period before scoring his own goal.
"It was a goal for us, we were probably a little impatient in the first two games," he said. "Tonight, we move the puck and make sure we have control of it and were a little more patient."
That patience is what makes Gonchar so important on the power play.
"He's really a calming influence back there," Guerin said. "He's like a chess master the way he works with Sid and Geno (Malkin) on moving the pieces around when we have a man advantage."
The ability to slow the tempo helps make Gonchar special.
"You guys can see how talented he is. His composure level; he just slows it down," said defense partner Brooks Orpik. "It gets kind of crazy out there and he just slows everything down and he has that ability to bring the game down to his speed and I think that settles everyone else around him down."
Consider these statistics: Gonchar had three goals and 11 assists in 18 regular-season games and now has 3 goals, including the Game 3 winner, and 11 assists in 18 postseason games.
"What a leader," Maxime Talbot said of Gonchar. "It's funny because me and Sid were actually talking about him right before the game. We looked at him. He sits right across from me and Sid. And you look at him -- and he's so calm. He's just so relaxed and poised. You look in his eyes and you know he's ready. He's been through a lot this year. It was a tough season. But as soon as he came back, I think it was a turning point of the season when he came back, the power play starting going."
Said Crosby, "Five-on-five, there are chances. But there are very few. When you get an opportunity on the power play you want to make the most of it. ... When you've got a guy like Gonch back there who does a great job of it, we just try to get him the puck."
The Penguins' ability to control the puck was especially rewarding against a team like Detroit, which often seems to have it on a string,
"They control the puck so well," he said, "you want to try to do a little of the same thing to them."
Orpik said he's never surprised by the magic that Gonchar brings to the ice with him.
"That was a long time to be off, but he stepped right in like he was never hurt," he said, "and it didn't take him long to make a big contribution."