All three players deserve every accolade each receives. They rank among the best players in the world at their respective positions. But one player whose name often gets left out, perhaps unfairly, is Sergei Gonchar. Without the presence – both on the ice and off – of the defenseman they call “Sarge,” it’s tough to imagine the Penguins sitting near the top of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
“I think he is just a guy who calms everybody down in the room,” Fleury said. “No matter what happens he is always the same – cool and calm. He leads by example.”
“When you think of elite defensemen and guys who are great at quarterbacking a power play and also playing defense, you talk about guys such as Gonch and (Nicklas) Lidstrom,” Crosby said. “Those guys are the best at it. They probably play the position as well as anyone. He is really important to our team in a lot of ways.”
Quiet and reserved both on the ice and off, Gonchar has always been a great leader through example. His steadying influence and his talents have been a huge reason why the Penguins have spent the past two-plus weeks resembling the team which captured the Stanley Cup championship last June.
To date, Gonchar’s season has twice been interrupted thanks to a broken left wrist which kept him out of 12 games between Oct. 23 – Nov. 16 and then later a lower-body injury which sidelined him for four games at the beginning of January.
During the 38 games Gonchar has been in the lineup the Penguins are a robust 26-11-1. When he has been out they are just 7-9.
Since his most recent return, the Penguins have been able to reverse a string of subpar performances and post a 6-3 record. In those nine games, Gonchar has chipped in with 10 points (3G-7A). His recent hot streak has vaulted him to eighth among all blueliners with 33 points (8G-25A) even though he has played an average of 13 less games than each of the seven players in front of him.
Gonchar said part of the reason for his success is he feels like he is over the injuries which hindered him during the first half.
“It was a little tough for me because I had a few injuries,” Gonchar said. “I like the way things are going right now. Hopefully they keep going the same way.
“Any player will tell you that it’s not fun when you have injuries and have to miss so many games because they are so close together because of the Olympics. When you are healthy and able to do what you normally do then you can have the same routine. That is much more enjoyable.”
If things keep going the way they have been for Gonchar, the rest of the National Hockey League better watch out.
Shortly after Gonchar returned the Penguins once again revamped their top power-play unit before a game in Calgary on Jan. 13. Malkin was shifted down low with Crosby and Bill Guerin, while Alex Goligoski joined Gonchar back along the point.
Since then the Penguins are 9-for-27 (33.3 percent) with the man-advantage. Of those nine power-play goals, Gonchar has factored in on six (1G-5A).
“The way he can quarterback a power play is probably something you cannot teach,” Crosby said. “He has a pretty special gift. He is probably the best at it.”
Gonchar has long been one of the best in the world at quarterbacking a power play, but he seems to be even better within the Penguins current formation.
Instead of remaining stationary and relying on tape-to-tape passes, the Penguins are constantly moving around, which has opened up more shooting and passing lanes. Gonchar has taken advantage, as his five power-play assists over the course of the previous seven games give him 16 on the season, tied for third most among all NHL defensemen despite missing all those games.
“Nowadays in the league there are so many guys who are good at blocking shots that if you aren’t moving and changing those lanes, you are not creating much,” Gonchar said. “That is why this new system is working better. When you are skating and helping each other then we are opening those lanes – not just the shooting lanes but the passing lanes also.”
While Gonchar is taking advantage of those passing lanes, he’s taking advantage of the shooting lanes as well. Both Crosby and Fleury said he rates among the best players in the league at getting his shot off from the point.
“There is a lot that goes into that,” Crosby said. “It’s not just burying your head and shooting the puck. That is why you don’t always see the guys with the hardest shots being able to do that. He’s the best at it. It’s hard to teach that kind of thing.”
“I think that is something he is really good at,” Fleury said. “He has a quick release. He is able to go around guys who want to block his shot. Sometimes you just have to put a shot on net and aim for a tip or shoot for a rebound. He has been very good at doing that.”
Gonchar is particularly good at shooting on the move. Against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday, Gonchar walked the puck towards the center of the ice and in one motion fired a low wrist shot towards the net which was deflected by Matt Cooke
in the slot for what held up as the game-winning goal.
Gonchar said his ability to shoot the puck on the move is something he practices.
“It is one of those things that I work on,” he said. “It’s one of those things you have to do with guys blocking shots.”
Fleury is not surprised Gonchar has so much success shooting off the move because he says goaltenders find it tough to deal with shots when players are still moving their feet as they release the puck.
“When you are not set then you are not ready to stop the shot,” Fleury said. “As a goaltender it can be tough to react to it because you are still moving.”
Thanks to Gonchar and the Penguins’ recent prowess on the power play, expect him to continue moving – right up the scoring list for defensemen.