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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

This summer seemed like a trip to the dentist for Sergei Gonchar – he couldn’t wait for it to end.

Gonchar became the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first free agent signing of the offseason when he inked a contract on Aug. 3. Since then, the anticipation kept building and building as he watched the team morph into a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. Free agents Andre Roy, Ziggy Palffy, John LeClair, Steve Poapst and Lyle Odelein followed his path in addition to a trade that brought in goaltender Jocelyn Thibault.

Finally, Gonchar and the rest of the Penguins are in training camp.

“It’s great; it’s exciting. You play against those guys and you know what they’re capable of and now you’re playing on the same team with them,” Gonchar said. “It’s a lot of excitement and a lot of expectation out of us.”

In the new offense-friendly NHL, Gonchar will play a key role in the Penguins’ attack by spearheading the defensive charge and quarterbacking the power play.

“I think (the rules changes) will help a lot of guys. It will be more interesting for the fans,” he said. “There will be more goals and it will be better for the game of hockey, too.”

Gonchar, the NHL’s highest-scoring defenseman the past four seasons, became acquainted with the free-flowing rules while playing in Russia last year during the NHL work stoppage.

“There’s no red line, so some forward is going to sneak behind so you have to look around and see what they’re doing. It’s going to take a while to get adjusted. I played in Russia and there was no red line and you get used it,” he said. “But at the same time, there were things I used to do as a defenseman, like holding guys or being in their way, and now I have to skate mostly. It’s going to put some extra pressure on me. But we’re all on the same page and we all have to adjust, it’s just going to be a matter of who does it quicker.”

Gonchar will be the top offensive threat on a balanced defensive unit.

“I know the guys can move the puck well. To work as a group together it will take some time,” he said. “Our level of defense will just be how hard we work.”

One name stands out to Gonchar in the Penguins’ defensive corps – Steve Poapst. The two played together during the 1994-95 season as members of the Portland Pirates in the Washington Capitals organization.

“I was happy to see a familiar face,” Gonchar said. “It is a great feeling to know someone when you come to a new place.”

Overall, Gonchar can’t wait for the puck to drop on the Penguins’ season Oct. 5 in New Jersey.

“When I was playing in Russia, it wasn’t the same,” he said. “I am just happy to be back in the NHL and to play here.”

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