Sergei Gonchar is surging in a Penguins uniform.
The veteran defenseman continues to rack up points from the blue line. He is the NHL’s top-scoring defenseman with 24 points (6+18) in 23 games.
Gonchar, who finished second in defenseman scoring last season with 67 points, has produced 128 points (25+103) in his last 113 games with the Penguins – proof that he is a perfect fit for head coach Michel Therrien’s system.
“I have adjusted to the system. When I first came here, I didn’t know what to expect and what to do out there,” he said. “But, now we have a system and we’re moving forward with that, so I guess that’s why I have the chance to jump in once in a while and create some offense.”
Gonchar’s success isn’t just a recent trend. This decade, he’s been the NHL’s most-prolific offensive defenseman. He leads all defensemen in goals (105) and is second in points (390) since 2000.
“One thing you have to remember is that I am fortunate enough to play on the power play here with a bunch of great guys and a lot of points come from there,” he said.
Indeed. Gonchar thrives on the power play. He is first in the NHL with 15 power-play points.
With such a talented supporting cast, Gonchar’s skills shooting and distributing the puck are well-utilized during the Penguins’ man-advantage opportunities.
“It is fun, especially now when we understand each other and know what to expect from each other,” he said. “We’re passing the puck around pretty well. It’s fun to be there and I am sure it’s exciting for the fans.
“The power play is such a big part of the game now. You have to score now because you don’t have that many chances and, 5-on-5, it’s so hard to score in the NHL these days,” he continued. “Every time you have a chance on the power play, you want to score some goals. We want it to continue and keep rolling.”
Often, the Penguins alter their power-play tactics and go with more of a traditional “umbrella” formation with Gonchar just inside the blue line near the middle of the ice and firing on goal, instead of positioned on the point near the boards.
“We’re trying to move around and give a little different look. Nowadays in the game, everybody is looking at you to try to figure out what you do,” he said. Sometimes we go with the umbrella and sometimes I stay along the boards more. It’s little things that you have to switch up once in a while to confuse people.”
Gonchar’s laser slap-shot becomes particularly dangerous when the Penguins are able to create traffic in front of opposing goalies.
“Nowadays in the NHL, you have so many good goalies,” he said. “If they’re going to see your shot, you’re never going to score on them. That’s one of the little things we’ve been working on – having somebody out front to make sure the goalie doesn’t see the shot.”
Even though he excels at the offensive end, Gonchar is still a defenseman and he continues to work on improving his game in front of the Penguins’ goal.
“It’s one of those things I have never been good at, but I am trying to improve,” he said. “It’s easier when you have a system around you. I am still working on it and hopefully I will continue my improvement.”
Despite his impressive statistics and consistent production, Gonchar was not listed among the Eastern Conference defensemen for the NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta.
“He should definitely be there,” said Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney, who is on the ballot. “It’s weird how that happens every year. You always see a couple guys who aren’t on the ballot and it doesn’t make much sense. He’s been so good this year; it’s weird.”
Still, Gonchar could be named to the All-Star Game despite not being on the fan ballot. He shakes off any such suggestion of that, though. Instead, he focuses on team improvement and success.
“It’s too early to say. I am just playing my game and not looking that far ahead,” he said. “The team is not playing as well as everybody expected, so my I am focused more on helping the team get better than the All-Star ballot.”
Whitney played in the YoungStars Game during the NHL All-Star festivities in Dallas last year. So, he was thrilled to see his name on the All-Star ballot this season.
“It’s pretty cool. I think along with winning a Stanley Cup and a Norris Trophy, I always dreamed of playing in an All-Star game,” he said. “At the same time, it’s pretty weird not seeing Gonch on there. That’s something that doesn’t make much sense, to me at least. He’s leading the defensemen in scoring.
“He could still go and I’d be very surprised if he doesn’t go. He’s playing awesome. He’s lighting it up,” he continued. “It’s great to see him do well. Hopefully, it’d be nice to see him make it. It’d be nice for me to be there, but it’d be great for us both to be there.”
Potentially, the Penguins could have four players at the All-Star Game in Atlanta. Crosby and Malkin are on the ballot with Whitney.
Last year, only Crosby played in the NHL All-Star Game – and was the leading vote-getter in All-Star balloting – while Malkin and Whitney participated in the YoungStars Game.
“Personally, for me, it’s exciting to be considered,” Whitney said. “You know Sid and Geno will be there. I don’t know if we could get all four of us there. I hope I can play in a couple during my career, though.”