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Third time's the charm for Pens' Gonchar

by Larry Wigge
DETROIT -- The third time is always the charm, right? For Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Serge Gonchar, the third trip to the Stanley Cup Final finally resulted in the chance to hoist the Cup.

"I've watched too many others get their chance to raise the Cup," he said Friday night after Pittsburgh's 2-1 win over Detroit in Game 7. "It was heavier than I thought. But it felt good to get my hands on it."

Ironically, the third time for the 35-year-old defenseman came against the Wings. The irony stemmed from the fact that it was the third time Gonchar had faced the Wings in the Finals -- he did it with Washington in 1998 and again in each of the last two years while playing in Pittsburgh.

"Yeah, third time's a charm," Gonchar smiled. "It was a nail-biter. The whole series was."

There almost always seems to be a then-and-now with highly-skilled athletes who tackle the slippery slopes of the National Hockey League. And there's no difference for the multi-talented Gonchar.

"We were a young team in Washington and we got to the finals on good defense and the goaltending of Olie Kolzig. We couldn't handle their offense and we didn't win a game," he recalled. "But this Pittsburgh team plays a different structure, a lot like Detroit does now. Good puck possession, great skill up front and a dependable defensive scheme.

"I thought we had a chance last year. But I really felt good about this year."

Eleven years ago, the 6-2, 200-pound defenseman from Chelyabinsk, Russia, was just 24 and playing in his third full season in the NHL. In the here and now, he's back in the Final -- transformed from an offensive defenseman who was the first Russian defenseman ever to score 20 goals in a season -- to an excellent two-way defenseman who's often assigned to help shut down the opposition's best offensive players.

Earlier in the series, Detroit forward Marian Hossa, who played with Gonchar last year and against him this time, said, "Before I got there, I always thought he was one of the smartest defensemen in the league. Then, after seeing more often, I'd say he's right up there with Nick Lidstrom, Zdeno Chara and Chris Pronger.

"He's so smart that he doesn't have to be physical. To me, the smart defensemen are the guys that forwards hate playing against. I don't think he gets enough credit."

But Gonchar hasn't lost his offensive skills.

"He's the best in the league at what he does on the point on the power play," captain Sidney Crosby said. "Defensively, he's just so well-positioned. And he's a great skater."

In victory, memories were running around in Gonchar's mind a mile a minute. He talked about how when he was a teen-ager, he was shocked when his coached took him aside and said he was too slow and not creative enough to play forward. Rather than protest, he accepted the change -- and at the time while he wasn't exactly enamored with the notion of stopping goals rather than scoring them, it turned out to be one of the best career choices Gonchar would ever make.

That's when he began watching Russian legend Slava Fetisov a little more attentively.

Fetisov was on that Wings team that beat against Gonchar and the Capitals in 1998. This time, it's Gonchar who's likely to be the player another up-and-coming defenseman will be trying to emulate.

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