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Inspiring Gonchar gets his reward

by Shawn P. Roarke
DETROIT -- For Sergei Gonchar, the pleasure was worth the pain.

The Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman finished an injury-ravaged season by helping the Penguins win their final game, a 2-1 victory against Detroit in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Gonchar, playing on a brace-buttressed knee and with a surgically repaired shoulder, was a huge part of Pittsburgh's win Friday night, playing more than 22 minutes of near-flawless hockey to earn his first Stanley Cup in three tries.

Not only had Gonchar lost last season, watching these same Red Wings celebrate on the Mellon Arena ice after winning Game 6, but he had also lost the 1998 Final while with the Washington Capitals -- also at the hands of the Red Wings.

For a while, it didn't look like Gonchar would be around to finish off Pittsburgh's amazing run to its first championship since 1992 and exorcise his own demons against Detroit.

In Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Gonchar was injured after his knee struck the knee of Alex Ovechkin during an open-ice hit. Many, including teammates, thought Gonchar was done for the season as they watched him writhe on the ice in agony.

Yet Gonchar was back for Game 7 of that series, willing himself into the lineup despite being far from 100 percent. 

"Playoffs are a different animal and different beast all together," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. "If you are around long enough in the playoffs, you tend to see things that go beyond what the doctor says. Would Sergei have played in the second round if that was Game 52? I'm not a gambling guy, but I would bet no."

But he did and he hasn't missed a game since, getting stronger each night. He scored the game-winning goal in Game 3, beginning his team's fight back from a 0-2 series deficit.
"Obviously, I'm very fortunate my body responded the right way and I'm playing right now," Gonchar said.

Gonchar's body may have responded properly to the knee rehabilitation, but there is no question that it has paid a hefty price to get him to his third Stanley Cup Final.

Remember, Gonchar separated his shoulder in the first exhibition game of the season. There was a chance, at that time, he would miss the entire season. Instead, Gonchar decided to have surgery to accelerate the possibility of returning this season. So while his team opened the season in Europe, he went under the knife in Pittsburgh.

"The way the season was, it was very tough in the beginning," Gonchar said. "I had an injury, and I didn't know how it's going to be after the surgery. I didn't know if I was going to come back and play this year, because there were a few options. There was a chance I'm going to play this year."

Instead, Gonchar returned to the lineup Feb. 14, right about the time the Penguins broke out of their funk and begin climbing up the Eastern Conference standings. Pittsburgh players say those two facts are inexorably linked.

Gonchar not only runs the team's power play and transition game, he also provides an almost preternatural calm to the other defensemen. His mere presence allows the other five defensemen to concentrate solely on their own jobs because they believe Gonchar would pick up the slack.

It is not a coincidence that the team played its best playoff hockey against Carolina in the Eastern Conference Final -- a stunningly savage four-game sweep -- once Gonchar started to find his rhythm.

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