A season that has gone so perfectly for the Penguins, rolling along at the top of the National Hockey League with an 8-1 record, will see them face their first adversity as top-scoring defenseman Sergei Gonchar will miss the next four to six weeks with a broken left wrist. The injury will not require surgery but the wrist must be immobilized.
“Surgery was not a consideration at all,” head coach Dan Bylsma told reporters Wednesday. “It is a broken bone that will heal on its own. It’s not displaced. It’s just a small fracture.”
"We were playing well and you want to be a part of it," Gonchar said. "Then you're injured. You're going to be behind but you can't really control it. You move forward and when the time comes you have to be ready. I'm going to focus on my rehab and work outs so when I come back I'll be ready to go."
Gonchar was injured towards the latter end of the second period of Tuesday’s 5-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues when he landed awkwardly after St. Louis forward David Backes finished off a clean check on Gonchar as the Penguins defenseman followed through on a shot.
Losing Gonchar will be a significant blow to the Penguins’ offense as the Russian defenseman ranks tied for second among all NHL defensemen with eight points (2G-6A) through Tuesday night’s contests. Gonchar also eats significant minutes for the Penguins, leading the team in ice time at 24:06 and is the team’s power-play quarterback.
We are going to miss Sergei but there are going to be guys who have the opportunity to step up. Our team has shown in the past that they have the ability to do that. - Dan Bylsma
“We are going to miss Sergei but there are going to be guys who have the opportunity to step up,” Bylsma said. “Our team has shown in the past that they have the ability to do that.
“It’s tough to replace that veteran presence and power-play guy. I think you saw early on this year we were rotating three more than we were last year on the power play. We have that opportunity for those two guys (Kris Letang
and Alex Goligoski) to take that particular spot.”
"We have a good group of defensemen," Gonchar said. "With Alex and Kris, they're young but the experience they gained last year will be there for them this year."
As durable as they come, Gonchar had not played less than 71 games in a season since making 53 appearances during the 1998-99 season for the Washington Capitals, prior to sitting out the first 56 games of last season due to a dislocated left shoulder sustained on a check by then-Tampa Bay Lightning winger David Koci in the preseason.
"I'm frustrated that it's two years in a row," Gonchar said. "But it's a bone in your wrist. It's not like I wasn't ready or in bad shape. I did everything possible to be ready to go. I thought I had a good start but you can't prepare for (injuries). One hand it's difficult, but on the other, last year was much tougher because I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know how my shoulder would respond because I never had surgery before."
Gonchar's shoulder responded well as his return helped the Penguins go 17-4-4 down a stretch run that culminated with a Stanley Cup championship in June. Replacing Gonchar is veteran defenseman Martin Skoula
, 29, who will make his Penguins’ debut on Friday night when the Florida Panthers visit Mellon Arena for a 7:30 p.m. face off. Skoula was signed by the Penguins as a free agent on Sept. 29.
“I think right now you have to feel pretty good about the signing of Martin Skoula,” Bylsma said. “For nine games he was the odd-man out and he wondered when he would get in. Now we have a guy with 700-plus NHL games we are going to insert into the lineup. He is going to help fill that role.”
In the wake of Gonchar's loss, the Penguins coaching staff will have to figure out the best way to rework their defensive pairings.
“That is a question our coaching staff really hasn’t addressed yet. Until this morning, we weren’t real confident about the situation we’d be left with. I have a feeling there are 20-25 minutes of ice time that have to be divided up now. I think you will see (players) probably get sprinkled around (into) other pairings.
“Martin Skoula is a steady, stay-at-home, puck-moving guy. He can easily be moved in with Brooks Orpik
and play that off-side. We will see how it shakes out.”
The Penguins will make adjustments in Gonchar's absence and hopefully continue their early season success.
"I hope there isn't any major setbacks," Gonchar said. "I want to be a part of it but hopefully my injury isn't going to effect the team that much. The team was playing well and hopefully while I'm gone and when I come back, we will continue that."