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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

Sergei Gonchar appears to have found his comfort zone in Pittsburgh.

After struggling in the early part of the season, Gonchar is coming on strong for the Penguins. He has 34 points (4+30) in his last 31 games played since Jan. 16 (see three charts at end of story).

“It seems like we’re all getting comfortable,” he said. “We’re playing the system much better.”

The 6-foot-1, 217-pound defenseman was the Penguins’ biggest free-agent signing last summer. Gonchar, an 11-year NHL veteran, had been one of the league’s most-productive blue-liners with 425 points (148+277) in 669 career games with Washington and Boston. He had scored more goals and more points than any NHL defenseman over the past four seasons (2000-01 through 2003-04), with 74 goals and 241 points.

However, in a new environment and radically different on-ice system, Gonchar struggled to replicate those lofty numbers at the start of the season. He had just two points (1+1) in his first nine games. He showed flashes of brilliance throughout November and December.

Then, a coaching change brought Michel Therrien and a whole new on-ice approach to Pittsburgh on Dec. 15. Ever since the switch to Therrien’s system, which is similar to the one in which Gonchar thrived during his tenure in Washington, the talented defenseman has produced regularly.

“The system is the thing you rely on. We’ve been working on it since the new coaching staff got here,” he said. “It was a little different before that. We had a lot of freedom and sometimes, as a defenseman, you don’t know exactly what is going on out there and it’s not always working in the best-case scenario for you. For the forwards, it was much better since they had more freedom to create more things. For me, personally, I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on.

“But since we have a new coaching staff here, we started playing much better system-wise,” he continued. “Everyone knows what to expect from the guy next to him. It’s the reason why I feel more comfortable out there and I had a chance to pick it up a bit.”

Gonchar, who also had trouble getting the right make of hockey sticks earlier in the year, feels more confident with a structured power play. It shows, too. He scored two power-play goals on March 31 to snap a drought which began Oct. 29.

“Obviously, every player, when he knows what’s going on around him, knows what to expect and he feels more comfortable out there,” he said. “It works for me, too. I feel more comfortable and know what to expect from every player on the ice. That gives you more confidence and more chances, too.”

Playing in the Olympics for Team Russia helped Gonchar’s game, too.

“The ice over there is bigger and you have the chance to control the puck and maybe skate a little extra and have more time with the puck,” he said. “It gives you a little more comfort because you are able to control things a little bit longer and better.”

Since he returned from the Olympics, Gonchar has 20 points (3+17) in 19 games. Overall, Gonchar has steadily produced points and is the Penguins’ second-leading scorer with 55 points (10+45). That total ranks as the fifth-best in his career. His career high is 67 points (2002-03). He had 58 points last season (2003-04) in Washington and Boston.


      A  PTS  +/-
First 42 games played   6  15   21 -16
Last 31 games played   4  30   34  +3
Season totals  10  45   55 -13

Since Olympic Break

   G    PTS  +/-
19 games played  3  17  20  +4

Gonchar's Career Season Scoring - Top Six

 Year  GP  G  A  PTS
 2002-03  82  18  49  67
 2001-02  76  26  33  59
 2003-04  71  11  47  58
 2000-01  76  19  38  57
 2005-06  73  10  45  55*
 1999-00  73  18  36  54

*Four games remaining this year


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