On a team full of young, budding superstars, Sergei Gonchar might sometimes get overlooked when perusing the Penguins’ roster.
However, it’s pretty hard to miss No. 55 when you look at the statistical leaders.
Once again, Gonchar is enjoying a prolific season for Pittsburgh. The veteran defenseman remains one of the NHL’s top offensive blueliners.
The Russian ranks second in defenseman scoring with 53 points (10+43) through the Penguins’ first 69 games. He is on pace to come close to his career high with 67 points, a total he reached last year with the Penguins and in the 2002-03 season with Washington.
“He’s playing awesome. He’s lighting it up,” Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney said. “It’s great to see him do well.”
Consistency has been Gonchar’s game throughout his career. Since 2000, he leads all defensemen with 109 goals and is second with 419 points. In addition, Gonchar has thrived in Pittsburgh in head coach Michel Therrien’s system. In his last 153 games in a Penguins uniform, Gonchar has 157 points (29+128).
“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 has created more than just a little offense. He has recorded 50 points or more in eight-straight seasons. That is the longest streak among active NHL defensemen. Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer and Bryan McCabe are the only other NHL blueliners to have 50 or more points in each of the last three seasons.
“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,” Gonchar said.
Indeed. Gonchar has 17 points (2+15) over his last 21 games and 17 of his last 19 points have come on the power play. He leads the NHL in power-play assists (32) and is second in power-play points (38).
His proficiency has helped the Penguins’ power play climb to third in the NHL with a 21.0 conversion percentage.
“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.”
Gonchar’s laser slap-shot becomes particularly dangerous when the Penguins are able to create traffic in front of opposing goalies, something they have stressed recently.
“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.”
Gonchar reached another significant milestone this season. On Feb. 21 in Montreal, he recorded his 600th NHL point when he ripped a game-winning goal into the net. It was a signature Gonchar goal as he fired the power-play tally from just inside the blue line and it sailed about a foot off the ground through traffic and into the goal.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to play with some good teams and some good players,” he said. “It’s not something you really think about it until it happens. I am just very grateful.”
Therrien was glad to see Gonchar reach that milestone.
“It’s a great, great accomplishment for a defenseman. First of all, defensively and on the power play he’s been playing really, really well,” he said. “But, for me, Sergei Gonchar is more than that. He’s a leader defensively. He’s playing against top players game in and game out. That’s really demanding. He’s playing on a top unit for penalty killing. He’s having a huge role. That’s the challenge I gave him two years ago and he took it really seriously and he’s playing with a lot of pride. Really, I am proud of him to be able to pick up his 600th point in the NHL.”
Gonchar, who represented the Penguins this year at the NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta, has worked hard to improve his defensive game, even though his bread and butter is in the offensive zone.
“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.”