TORONTO - Sergei Gonchar returned to the lineup with a bang after missing four games with an undisclosed injury. The Penguins top defenseman scored two goals and added an assist for a three-point night to help the Penguins kick off their five-game “Western Canada” trip with a 4-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre.
“He’s a guy who can change a game with the way he manages the puck and the way he shoots it,” captain Sidney Crosby
said. “He proved it with his shot here that he’s tough to stop. He got some quality looks and made them pay.”
“It was a pretty good effort from our blue line and Gonch was a big part of that,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “It’s nice to have that confident guy back there, that leader back there. And the mentality too with the veteran presence, doing the right things and playing solid defensively.”
Gonchar finished the game with a plus-3 rating, six shots and five blocked shots.
His first goal, which proved to be the game-winner, snapped a 1-1 tie in the second period. With the Penguins working on a power play, Gonchar ripped a slap shot into the top of the net for a man-advantage score.
The referees did not initially signal for the goal and the play resumed, ending with Gonchar taking a hooking penalty on Alexei Ponikarovsky on a shorthanded breakaway opportunity. The referees reviewed the play and awarded Gonchar with a goal and a two-minute penalty in a bizarre sequence.
“It’s never happened to me and I’m sure it hasn’t happened too often,” Gonchar said. “I was surprised. It happened so quickly but I’ll take it. The referee explained it to me. After I scored I was fine with it.”
Gonchar wasn’t sure right away whether or not his shot had gone into the net.
“No, I didn’t know,” he said. “As soon as I got back to the bench our guys told me it went in. I knew then.”
Gonchar got even for that penalty call. After stepping out of the penalty box, the veteran blueliner blasted another shot into the goal to give Pittsburgh a 3-1 lead.
“I was going to change but the guys told me to stay on,” Gonchar said. “The puck came right to me. Evgeni (Malkin) made a nice pass to me. I had a chance for the shot and it went in.”
Gonchar had been hobbled with an injury after blocking a shot against the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 30. In that contest, Gonchar fell hard to the ice while killing a penalty after a Brian Rolston shot struck him in the leg. He struggled to get to the bench but returned to finish the game.
Gonchar was in so much pain the next day that he was forced to sit out the Penguins’ next four contests. Gonchar worked hard to get back in the lineup and his status for this game was unknown until after he took warm ups.
“I was out for a while so it was tough for me in the beginning, getting my timing back,” Gonchar said. “It took me a period to get back on track. When you miss four games in a row it’s not easy to come back and jump right in.”
Gonchar’s return came at an ideal time. After fellow defenseman Brooks Orpik
left the game with an undisclosed injury in the first period, the team leaned heavily on Gonchar and the remaining healthy defenders. The Russian native logged 19:14 minutes of ice time.
“If you look at us, we played with five defensemen for most of the game,” Gonchar said. “I didn’t play much in the third (period). Our defensive group did a great job and our forwards helped us a lot. It was a great team effort. We played well together and we’re helping each other.”
Gonchar added an assist on Sidney Crosby
’s team-leading 27th goal of the season to give the Penguins an insurmountable 4-1 advantage and give Pittsburgh a 1-0 start to their current road excursion.
“We got a win,” Gonchar said. “It’s a good start for us.”