A little comfort goes a long way.
Each game, Sergei Gonchar is getting used to his new Pittsburgh Penguins teammates and, each game, he’s been feeling more comfortable.
Familiarity turned into three points – two goals and an assist – for Gonchar at Mellon Arena on Thursday night. He helped guide the Penguins to their first win of the season, 7-5, over the Atlanta Thrashers.
“I am getting my confidence back with every game I play,” he said.
The Pittsburgh Penguins revamped their roster this offseason as only nine Penguins remain from last season’s opening-night lineup. Gonchar, who signed a five-year deal, was the cornerstone of the team’s free-agent activity.
“A lot of teams in this league have been playing together for a long time. We’re still learning from each other and we’re still getting better every game,” he said. “We have a lot of potential here; it’s just a matter of time.”
Gonchar, who played nine and a half seasons in Washington and part of last season in Boston, has 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. His play is crucial to the Penguins’ power-play success.
Fans in attendance Thursday night at Mellon Arena saw vintage Gonchar.
“He has been struggling, but everybody has been struggling,” Penguins captain Mario Lemieux said. “[Thursday was] the way he played in Washington – the way I remembered from playing against him in all those playoff games. When he moves around and carries the puck the way he did [Thursday] night, he’s a great player.”
Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk sensed Gonchar, who scored his first goal in a Penguins uniform last Saturday, was starting to find his groove with the team.
“We thought he was getting involved and feeling much more comfortable the last couple of games,” he said. “That’s what we needed from him, especially when [defenseman] Dick [Tarnstrom] went down. That’s the type of play we expect from Sergei from Day 1, but it goes hand-in-hand with the team play, that’s for sure.”
Gonchar finally seems comfortable quarterbacking Pittsburgh’s top power-play unit. The Penguins’ system is different from what he ran in Washington and Boston.
“The power play was tough for me [here] because I played with Washington my whole career and then a little stop in Boston,” he said. “It is a little different here and it took me a little bit to get used to the guys and the setup here. Hopefully, I will continue to play the same way.”
Even though the Penguins fell behind, 4-0, in the first period, Gonchar and the Penguins did not lose confidence. Gonchar scored the team’s third and fourth goals 2:54 apart.
“It seems like we all played better. We had a couple bad breaks on the penalties and they were able to score,” he said. “Even though we were down 4-0, we continued to play the same way and we were able to get back. We knew there was plenty of time left.”
In addition to new surroundings, Gonchar has been dealing with new tools. He hasn’t been able to find the right kind of hockey stick all season. Easton no longer makes the same kind of model Gonchar is used to, but the company is working feverishly to find a suitable replacement.
“They have to do new ones. I am waiting and waiting for it,” Gonchar said. “Unfortunately, they haven’t made it yet so I have to wait and hope in the next couple of games they will be here.”
The sticks Easton shipped to Gonchar in the early part of the season just weren’t right and they affected Gonchar’s game physically and mentally.
“I gave them my stick, but they came up with a bigger curve and a different lie,” he said. “It’s not [affecting] my passing and stickhandling, but my shot. I am not shooting as much as I would normally.
“It’s huge – you’re coming to a new team and you want to do well and help the team. When you don’t have the right tools, it really frustrates me.”
Easton was able to find a few similar older models and send them to Gonchar.
“They found me sticks they made four years ago. Since they have been sitting in a factory for four years, they are not as good as new. I have to adjust to it and deal with it,” he said. “They sent me six sticks and I broke three of them already.”
Nevertheless, Gonchar believes Thursday’s game could be a turning point for himself and his Penguins teammates, who went winless in their first nine games.
“There is a lot of talent on this team. Going into this season, we had a lot of expectations,” he said. “We were all frustrated with the start of the season. [Thursday] is probably one of those nights where we started clicking as a team. We played better defensively and started shooting a little more on the power play. It was important and hopefully we’re going to stick with it and play like that the rest of the season. We have a win under our belts. Hopefully, now we can just have fun and go play hockey and turn this thing around.”