Following a broken left wrist suffered against the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night, the Penguins will once again have to rediscover life without Sergei Gonchar. The high-scoring defenseman will miss the next four to six weeks.
Replacing such a key cog of the operation, especially a guy at the lead controls, would be much to ask of one player, so the Penguins will instead focus on using the sum of all remaining parts to replace the value Gonchar brings to the table.
“That’s the situation we face and we’ve been here before,” captain Sidney Crosby
said. “I think the story doesn’t change when you lose guys. Other guys have to step up, especially without Gonchar. He’s a big part of our team. We’re going to have a bunch of guys do that.”
Head coach Dan Bylsma said following Thursday mornings’ practice, the first since Gonchar’s injury, the pairings at the start of Friday night’s matchup with the Florida Panthers at Mellon Arena will see Brooks Oprik with Alex Goligoski, and Jay McKee joining forces with Martin Skoula. Kris Letang
and Mark Eaton will remain untouched.
“That would be a tentative starting plan,” Bylsma said. “Again, we have talked about different scenarios within a game where that might change as well.
“I think it is probably too early to say ‘hey we are going with three pairings and this is how it is going to be.’ It may be a situation where the pairings start one way and a different situation lends to seeing a 3 (Goligoski) and a 58 (Letang) together more often. Right now we are going to see how that goes. We have talked about it and bounced some things out.”
Nobody really benefits when a player the caliber and importance of Gonchar exits the lineup for an extended period, but such an opportunity does give Skoula a chance to make his debut in a Penguins’ sweater.
“I knew what I was coming in for,” Skoula said. “Actually it’s a pretty good experience because the last nine years I just played 80 games every year. I was just trying to stay ready for whenever the first game comes.”
“I’m sure he was looking for his opportunity to get in the lineup,” Crosby said. “I’m sure he didn’t want it to be that way, but it’s still a great opportunity for him to get in. He’s a guy that’s experienced. It’s not like he’ll have the nerves and things like that. He’ll be able to come in and use that experience to his advantage.”
Orpik, who has spent a majority of the past two seasons paired with Gonchar, was impressed with the way Skoula handled the difficult situation of spending each of the first nine games in the press box.
“I think he has kept a pretty positive attitude here,” Orpik said. “I’m sure he wanted to be playing but he understood the situation. He’s come here and worked hard. I think he is probably ready for the challenge. He has had some good practices since he got here. It’s a good opportunity for him.”
While he doesn’t possess the natural offensive skills of Gonchar, Skoula will bring talents of his own to the equation. He has good mobility to go with his larger frame, makes a solid first pass out of the defensive zone, provides excellent durability and stays out of the penalty box – he has gone over 42 penalty minutes just once his first nine seasons.
Skoula said he used his three weeks of practice to get to know both the system employed by Bylsma and the different tendencies of the other defensemen. Because the Penguins often rotate through their defense during practice, he feels comfortable taking a shift with each of the other five.
Orpik, who has been through this situation last year when Gonchar missed the first 56 games of the season due to a dislocated shoulder, is not worried about having to find chemistry with the other guys.
“The whole second half of the last game I was playing with Tanger (Letang) and Goose (Goligoski). Even during the games when Gonch was playing I would play after the power plays with McKee a little bit. We are all used to each other. We all played with each other in the preseason. As long as the communication is there it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.”
Orpik did allow that missing Gonchar’s savvy nature on the bench might hurt at times.
“He seems like he has a calming influence over the rest of us when he is here. It is something we dealt with last year. It’s not the end of the road for us but it’s not something you want to have happen.”
Something the Penguins dealt with last year was throwing Letang and Goligoski into the fire at the point positions on one of the league’s most lethal power plays. While neither likes to see Gonchar missing, they are relishing the opportunity which presents itself.
“It is a tough loss,” Letang said. “Obviously he is the general at the point and very good on the power play, setting the puck up and bringing it up ice. There is going to be some adjustment. We are not going to try to replace him but do the best we can do with what we have.
“I play the left point no matter what so I’m just going to try to bring more to the table. I am going to keep playing the same way.”
“It’s unfortunate that we’re going to miss him for a little time,” Goligoski added. “But I think we have guys that can step in. We have guys that can help fill that role for a while.
“I’ve played (the right point on the power play) before. I feel good over there.”
Crosby believes that the experience each received last year during Gonchar’s absence will allow the duo to play at an even higher level this time around.
“I don’t think Letang’s job is really going to change. He kind of stays in that position. That’s where he’s always played. I think it’s pretty much a normal job, normal spot. For Goligoski, he switches back there playing in Gonchar’s spot. He’s just going to have to get used to where we are. That position doesn’t change.
“They’re much more experienced. I think Goligoski played a couple games in the Washington series. Those are big games to be a part of. And Letang played all playoffs, the Stanley Cup Final. Those are pressure situations and they were able to do a great job in them. This is something that’s a challenge for them, but they’re more than ready and they’ve been through it.”
If either or both have any questions during Gonchar’s absence, Letang knows right where they can go for advice. He spoke about how Gonchar would often talk to him last season about what he was seeing above ice level, and Letang knows they can go back to the veteran this time as well.
The challenge of replacing Gonchar begins Friday. Jumping into back-to-back games off the bat with New Jersey invading Mellon Arena Saturday should remove any time the players have to over think about the situation, and allow them to go out and do what they have thus far – play sound defensive hockey and win games.