The points keep piling up for Sergei Gonchar – and so do the milestones.
The Penguins defenseman continues to produce from the blue line and is nearing a notable landmark: 500 points. He is only five points shy.
“When I was growing up, obviously, I never thought I’d play in the NHL. I never thought I’d be able to get 500 points,” he said. “It’s a great accomplishment. I am really proud of that. Not that many Russians have done that – especially defensemen. I am very happy and proud. I just hope I will get another 500 after that.”
Gonchar already is in an exclusive club. With 162 goals, 333 assists and 495 points in his distinguished career, Gonchar is one of the most-productive NHL defensemen to come from the former Soviet Union. Sergei Zubov (684) and Sandis Ozolinsh (545) are the only defensemen born-and-trained in the former Soviet Union with more career points in the NHL than Gonchar. Gonchar still needs more than 100 points to break into the top 10 of all-time points leaders from the former USSR, according to Bob Waterman of Elias Sports Bureau.
Additionally, Gonchar ranks second only to Ozolinsh (164 goals) in all-time goals by a Russian-born defenseman. And, since 2000, he leads all NHL defensemen in goals scored with 88 and is second in points with 310.
“You never concentrate on those numbers. You just go out there and play your game,” said Gonchar, who appeared in his 700th NHL game last year. “One time the number is up and you see it there, but it’s nothing you concentrate on.”
Still, it’s no mistake Gonchar keeps piling up goals and assists. He finished with 58 points (12+46) last season – the third-highest point total of his career. He finished 2005-06 in scintillating fashion as he racked up 37 points in his last 23 games played.
He’s carried over his strong play to this season as he has posted 12 points (2+10) in his first 14 games.
“He’s playing well with the puck and when he doesn’t have it,” Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. “It’s a good sign.”
To begin the year in midseason form, Gonchar made some changes to his offseason workout regimen.
“It’s a secret,” he said with a smile. “I just had a different approach and a different style of workouts. [Penguins strength and conditioning coach] Stephane Dube and I talked about it and I have a new fitness coach in Russia. It’s a little of everything.
“It’s not about more work; it’s about different workouts. Everything was different,” he continued. “I shouldn’t say that I did more than I used to, but I definitely did it a different way. I am feeling very well on the ice. I can stay out there a little longer. I am more ready. Physically, I am in better shape. I wanted to come back and start where I finished. Hopefully, that’s the case.”
Both of Gonchar’s goals have come on the power play. However, he should find the back of the net often on the man-advantage with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin dishing him the puck.
“It’s a team effort. We’ve been moving the puck well,” Gonchar said. “I have been shooting the puck, but everyone around is helping. We have a good group of guys. It’s just a matter of being on the same page.”
Gonchar, one of the team’s alternate captains, brings plenty of leadership to a young Penguins lineup.
“He is a leader with that defensive group,” Therrien said. “I really like the way he has been playing.”
However, Gonchar has two additional roles – landlord and occasional translator for Malkin, the 20-year-old Penguins rookie from Russia. During the 2004-05 NHL work stoppage, Gonchar played alongside Malkin for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the Russian Super League.
So, when Malkin left his homeland to come to Pittsburgh this year, Gonchar and his wife, Ksenia, offered to let the youngster stay at their house – much like the way Crosby moved in with Mario Lemieux and his family last year.
“I am happy to help. Evgeni is a nice guy,” Gonchar said. “It takes some time away from my family, but we all understand the guy needed a place to stay until he could get out on his own. I am sure he’ll be fine here. He has his own car and can drive around now.”
Living with the Gonchars has an additional benefit – Malkin is getting special English lessons from their daughter, Natalie, who is four and a half.
“My daughter is going to preschool and when she learns a new word, she asks Evgeni if he knows what it means and then she explains it to him,” Sergei said. “It’s kind of funny. Every day when she gets home, she’s so excited about the words she learned that day and she can’t wait to explain them to him.”
Gonchar enjoys watching his housemate succeed in the NHL. And, he’s rooting for Malkin to win the Calder Memorial Trophy as the league’s top rookie.
“Obviously, he is a great player and has a great chance to win it,” he said. “I am sure he’ll improve with every game.”