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Letang steps up in Gonchar's absence

by Brian Hunter

A few thoughts as the hockey world prepares to turn its attention to Roberval, Quebec, for Tuesday night’s Hockeyville celebration and Canadiens-Sabres game:

Concern for Gonchar – While the fans at the St. Pete Times Forum on Monday night were in a frenzy because of who was on the ice – namely 2008 top draft pick Steven Stamkos making his home debut for the Lightning – the Pittsburgh Penguins were concerned about a player who wasn’t available.

Sergei Gonchar, their power-play quarterback and the second-leading scorer among NHL defensemen last season with 65 points, injured his left shoulder when the teams opened the preseason Saturday in Pittsburgh and is out indefinitely. Gonchar is scheduled to undergo an MRI this week to determine the extent of the injury.

Filling Gonchar’s skates in a big way Monday was second-year blueliner Kris Letang, who netted a power-play goal in the first period and set up Tyler Kennedy’s go-ahead goal in the third period on another man-advantage, as the Penguins claimed a 3-2 victory against the Lightning.

Letang possesses unlimited offensive potential and displayed it at times during his rookie season, with 6 goals and 17 points. But Letang came up empty goal-wise during the playoffs and found himself a healthy scratch by the conclusion of the Penguins’ run to the Stanley Cup Final.

Pittsburgh hopes to see Letang take the next step this season, but even if he takes strides toward becoming the type of offensive defenseman Gonchar has been for years, the Penguins hope to get the original back on the ice sooner rather than later.

“There isn’t a better power-play quarterback in hockey,” Penguins assistant coach Mike Yeo said. “The puck goes through Gonchar. When the puck goes up top to him, with his skill and vision, (opponents) have to respect it and that opens up space for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. (Gonchar) does so many little things that nobody else does, things that you can maybe take for granted. But he’s the only one I see doing them.”

Hoping for another shot – The New York Rangers expect big contributions this season from newcomers like defenseman Wade Redden and forwards Markus Naslund, Nikolai Zherdev and Dan Fritsche.

Petr Nedved? The former star center, who had two previous tours of duty for the Blueshirts, had to petition the team just to get an invitation to training camp. It’s a long shot for the Czech native to be on the Rangers’ roster when they open in Prague on Oct. 4, but it hasn’t stopped him from trying.

“I have to be realistic and I don’t see a big chance,” Nedved told Czech reporters during the summer. “It’s probably (a) closed chapter for me … but you never say never.”

Nedved got the Rangers rolling in a 2-1 win Monday against the Ottawa Senators at Madison Square Garden, scoring early in the first period off a lead pass from another new acquisition, Aaron Voros. Although Nedved started the game skating on the fourth line with Voros and youngster Pierre Parenteau, he later saw time on the power-play and penalty-killing units, ringing a shot off the post during a Rangers man-advantage in the second period.

“Surely when I left I wasn’t expecting to be coming back,” Nedved said after being named the game’s first star. “It is so nice to be back in the National Hockey League. It’s just an exhibition game, but I was nervous before the game to the point that I didn’t know what to expect. Hopefully I will build on this and take it to the next game. I didn’t come to a team that I never played for, so I feel so comfortable.”

Nedved, who once scored 45 goals in a season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, hasn’t had a double-digit output in the NHL since 2003-04, when he tallied 19 with the Rangers and Edmonton Oilers. He spent last season playing for Czech team Sparta Praha, where he totaled 20 goals in 45 games.

A welcome return – The Boston Bruins lost all eight regular-season games to the Montreal Canadiens last season and were ousted by the Habs in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a best-of-seven series that went the distance. Patrice Bergeron missed all but one of those 15 games after a concussion suffered in late October curtailed his season.

If the Bruins weren’t excited enough to have Bergeron back in the lineup, they got a glimpse of what they were missing when he scored a goal and assisted on three others in an 8-3 win against the Canadiens on Monday in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

“I was having so much fun,” Bergeron said. “It was great to be back. In the first period I had to get my rhythm back, but after that I felt pretty good. I am very happy that the first one is behind me now … and people can stop asking me how I am feeling.”

Bergeron skated on a line with Marco Sturm, who also had a four-point night (2 goals, 2 assists) and Phil Kessel. The Bruins also had to like what they saw from prospect Vladimir Sobotka (2 goals).

Manny Fernandez, who like Bergeron was sidelined for most of 2007-08, stopped 10 of 12 shots in playing the first 40 minutes. Fernandez and Tim Thomas figure to make up the Bruins’ goaltending tandem this season.

Making a statement – The people of Kansas City have a new arena perfectly suited for hockey, and Monday they had an NHL game.

The Los Angeles Kings skated away with a 2-1 win against the St. Louis Blues before an energetic crowd of 11,603 at the $276 million Sprint Center, built in the hopes of attracting an NHL team to the city.

“I’d rate it (Kansas City) as a sleeping giant,” said Paul McGannon, president of NHL 21, a civic group trying to bring a franchise to the city. “The sport never really had a chance on the major-league level. You can’t really judge a market until you have a major-league facility, which we do, and eventually a team.”   

Since opening its doors the Sprint Center has hosted concerts and ice shows, but Monday was its first taste of hockey. A large number of fans showed up wearing Blues paraphernalia, and some even sported jerseys of the Kansas City Scouts, an NHL expansion franchise that played two seasons at Kemper Arena in the 1970s.

"One of the reasons we built this building was to look at opportunities for the community and certainly the NHL is at the top of the list. This is a big test for us to see how people embrace it." -- Kevin Gray

“One of the reasons we built this building was to look at opportunities for the community and certainly the NHL is at the top of the list,” said Kevin Gray, president of the Kansas City Sports Commission and Foundation. “This is a big test for us to see how people embrace it.”

Consider that first test passed, with flying colors. A buzz of anticipation filled the arena with each odd-man rush and cheers rang out with each check into the boards. The Blues fans – more than half the crowd – rose from their seats with a roar when Paul Kariya punched in a rebound late in the third period to cut the Kings’ lead to 2-1.

Heeding the callVancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault wants to see more from offseason pick-up Kyle Wellwood in terms of conditioning. Wellwood did his best Monday to show his new bench boss that he’s in good enough shape to get the job done.

Wellwood snapped a shot past Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mathieu Garon in the first round of the shootout to get the Canucks started and Jason Krog added the deciding tally in a 4-3 win at Rexall Place.

Vigneault said Monday that Wellwood’s conditioning is “still not NHL caliber,” and that the 25-year-old center, who scored 42 points in only 48 games for Toronto two seasons ago but dropped off to just 21 points last season, must raise that level if he wants to crack the Vancouver lineup.

“I talked to Kyle this morning,” Vigneault said. “He is going to be re-tested after the first four (preseason) games. I understand the fact he was injured and is sort of playing himself into shape and as long as we see improvements and consistent improvement we’ll work with him and give him the benefit of the doubt. The day that stops, it stops.”

Meanwhile, Garon was happy this one didn’t count. In giving up two goals on three shots in the shootout, he matched the total number of shootout goals he allowed for the entire 2007-08 season. Garon denied 30 of 32 attempts, the best single-season mark since the tiebreaker was introduced three seasons ago, and went 10-0 in shootouts.

Adding punchSteve Downie gained some notoriety early in his career for aspects of his game other than goal scoring – but make no mistake, the 21-year-old forward knows what to do when he has the puck around the opposition’s net.

While the Flyers count on Downie to bring physicality and grit to their lineup, his offensive ability was on display Monday at the Wachovia Center against the New Jersey Devils. He sparked a 4-1 win with a pair of goals.

After Mike Richards opened the scoring for the Flyers at 17:12 of the first period, Downie beat Devils goaltender Kevin Weekes just 1:36 later for what turned out to be the game-winning goal. Downie padded the lead early in the third period by scoring against Scott Clemmensen.

Downie registered 23 goals in 2006-07 with the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League. As a Flyers rookie last season, he contributed 6 goals and 12 points in 32 games and also saw action in six playoff games as the team advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals.

CuJo returns to Toronto – A packed crowd at Air Canada Centre seemed to have one thing on its mind prior to the start of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ preseason opener Monday. Fans chanted the name of goaltender Curtis Joseph, once a savior in net for the Leafs and now back after a six-year absence to play behind starter Vesa Toskala.

Joseph played the first period of a 7-4 win against the Buffalo Sabres and stopped four of the five shots he faced. During his first stint in Toronto, which lasted from 1998-2002, he twice led the Maple Leafs to the Eastern Conference Finals and won 133 games, the fourth-highest total in franchise history.

There were numerous other storylines, as Ron Wilson made his Toronto coaching debut and defenseman Luke Schenn, the fifth pick in June’s draft, skated in his first game.

Marek Zagrapan, selected No. 13 in the 2005 draft, had a goal and 2 assists for the Sabres.

Material from wire services and team media was used in this report.

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