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Gonchar decision will alter Pens' lineup for Game 1

by Shawn P. Roarke /
Pittsburgh Penguins Playoff GearPITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has an important decision to make in the hours leading up to Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Defenseman Sergei Gonchar seems to be rounding into health after missing part of the previous round against Washington with a knee injury. Gonchar played 15:06 in Game 7 against Washington on Wednesday, including almost five minutes of power-play time.

But is Gonchar healthy enough now -- after two days of practice and Monday's morning skate -- to handle a regular shift in Game 1 (7:30 p.m. ET, VERSUS, TSN, RDS)?

If Bylsma believes the answer to that question is yes, he can go with a traditional six-man defensive rotation. If not, he will be forced to continue the seven-defensemen, 11-forward alignment that the Penguins have used since Gonchar was injured in Game 4 of the Washington series.

Monday morning, Bylsma was playing it close to the vest, saying his decision would come just before puck drop.

"He had a good day at practice yesterday, looked comfortable out there today," Bylsma said. "I haven't talked to our trainer yet, but it's a situation, come game time, if he continues to look better, it will be a Game 7 situation and we will decide at that point."

Although Bylsma wouldn't commit to it in the morning, he will most likely go with a seven-defensemen set-up again in Game 1. Most importantly, he wants to protect the amount of time Gonchar has to play 5-on-5, especially with Carolina's punishing forecheck. Also, by dressing just 11 forwards, he is almost forced to give his star players -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal -- extra shifts as the fourth-line center between Craig Adams and Miroslav Satan.

The fact that Game 2 in this series is not until Thursday also plays into the decision. Bylsma feels comfortable piling extra work on his three primary centers because there are two days to recover before the next game.

"Certainly, a fourth line with 87 (Crosby), 27 (Adams) and 81 (Satan) is a pretty good one," Bylsma said "Add 71 (Malkin), 81 and 27, it's a pretty good fourth line too, so it is beneficial in that regard."

In fact, the only negatives to going with seven defensemen is that it forces the coaching staff to pay even more attention to matchups and defensive-pair changes and it possesses the possibility of allowing the team's top-tier defenders to get out of synch because of the odd distribution of shifts, playing partners and ice time.

"I think probably my biggest drawback is that as an assistant coach you change the defensemen and seven is harder to handle than six," Bylsma said. "Sometimes, it is harder for the players to get into it -- not the regular rhythm as a defenseman."

But the Penguins won two out of the three games that they played seven defensemen -- including a Game 7 rout against Washington on the road -- and that is the ultimate arbiter of success for any coach.

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