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Goligoski ready for prime time with Penguins

by Chuck Gormley /
Alex Goligoski isn’t one to live in the past.

When you’re 24-years-old with a future as bright as his, it’s only natural to live in the here and now and ponder your future in the NHL.

But that doesn’t mean the Pittsburgh Penguins’ ultra-talented defenseman didn’t soak in everything it takes to be a champion during the Pens’ run to a Stanley Cup last spring.

Although he played in just two of the Penguins’ 24 playoff games, Goligoski grew the customary playoff beard and rode the highs and lows of four grueling playoff series.

"It was really cool for me to be a part of that," Goligoski said. "Watching those games, you see how committed guys were and just how hard it is to win the Cup."

When the Penguins lost free-agent defensemen Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill over the summer, many wondered how their departures would impact the Penguins’ blue line. Goligoski saw it only as an opportunity.

The 5-foot-11, 180-pounder wanted to prove that his promising rookie season -- he netted 6 goals and 14 assists in 45 regular season games with the Penguins -- was no fluke and that he could emerge as a reliable NHL defenseman.

Through the first seven weeks of the season Goligoski has proven just that, and more.

"He’s confident he can play at a high level," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said earlier this season. "He’s confident about what he can bring to the table."

Goligoski entered the weekend leading all Penguins defensemen with 13 points. His 6 goals ranked second among all NHL defensemen and his plus-11 ranked third.

"The sky is the limit for Alex," said his new defense partner, Jay McKee, a free-agent pickup from St. Louis. "I’ve really been very impressed with him. He’s just got a ton of talent and you can see him getting better and better. I have played with guys like him before, and he's been easy to play with."

At 6-foot-4, 203 pounds, McKee, 32, is a classic, stay-at-home, shot-blocking defenseman and has proven to be the perfect complement to the sleek-skating Goligoski, whose talent was evident long before he broke into the NHL.

The youngest of Dan and Paula Goligoski’s two sons, Alex said he grew up like many other boys in Grand Rapids, Minn., playing hockey at the Grand Rapids IRA Civic Center in the winters and landscaping in the summers at a business across the street from his home.

“Potting flowers, planting, basic yard work,” he said.

It wasn’t until his sophomore season at Grand Rapids High School that Goligoski began thinking about a career in hockey. He said he considered playing major junior hockey in Canada, but decided the level of high school hockey in Minnesota was just as strong and remained at Grand Rapids High School, where he recorded 25 goals and 31 assists in his senior year with the Thunderhawks.

"I wanted to stay in high school with my friends," he said. “High school hockey in Minnesota is at another level and it’s never going to hurt players to stay here and play.”

Following his senior year, Goligoski was taken by the Penguins in the second round (61st pick) of the 2004 Entry Draft and chose to fulfill a childhood dream by playing at the University of Minnesota, where he majored in business and marketing.

In three years with the Gophers, Goligoski totaled 25 goals and 73 assists in 118 games and was selected a 2006-07 All-American and WCHA Defensive Player of the Year, the first Minnesota player to win that award since Jordan Leopold in 2000-01 and 2001-02.

Goligoski said the Penguins showed an interest in pulling him out of college after his sophomore season, but he chose to stay three full years at Minnesota before turning pro.

"They had some general thoughts about bringing me to Pittsburgh, but I didn’t feel I was ready," he said. "I wanted to continue my schooling and get bigger and stronger."

Goligoski played a full season with the AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in 2007-08, then was called up by the Penguins last season when Sergei Gonchar was sidelined by injury.

"I know it sounds like a cliché, but everyone was so welcoming and so helpful," Goligoski said, noting the support he received from Scuderi, Gill, Brooks Orpik, Mark Eaton and Gonchar.

"The sky is the limit for Alex. I’ve really been very impressed with him. He’s just got a ton of talent and you can see him getting better and better. I have played with guys like him before, and he's been easy to play with."
-- Jay McKee on Alex Goligoski

Goligoski was mostly a spectator during the Penguins’ thrilling run to the Stanley Cup, but played in Games 5 and 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Washington Capitals.

When the Pens prevailed in seven games against the Detroit Red Wings, Goligoski became the sixth former University of Minnesota player to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup, joining Tom Chorske, Neal Broten and Chris McAlpine from the 1995 Devils, Frank Pietrangelo from the 1991 Penguins and Ben Clymer from the 2004 Lightning.

Like every other member of the Penguins, Goligoski experienced the thrill of spending a day with the Stanley Cup and his came on Aug. 19.

Goligoski took the Cup to the Grand Rapids ice rink, where fans waited in long lines to take pictures and receive autographs.

"It’s a hockey town so they can appreciate what it means to have the Stanley Cup," he said. "We planned to be there two hours, but we were there a lot longer than that. The line seemed like it was never-ending."

Next were trips to a local restaurant and bar, followed by a backyard party at the Goligoski house, where the Stanley Cup served as a centerpiece on a picnic table.

"I didn’t sleep with it," he said with a laugh, "but it was so cool to have it."

The Penguins managed to carry the same enthusiasm into this season, avoiding a Stanley Cup hangover with a 12-3-0 start before a recent four-game slide.

"It’s a new year and a new team, really," Goligoski said. "We have a lot of young guys with a lot of energy, and not all of us played through June. We hit a little rough patch and we need to respond."

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