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Gonchar, Lidstrom Among Blueline Elite

by Joe Sager / Pittsburgh Penguins

This Stanley Cup Final between the Penguins and Red Wings features some interesting battles.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marian Hossa vs. Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen. Marc-Andre Fleury vs. Chris Osgood.

But, don’t forget about the individual blueline matchup between Pittsburgh’s Sergei Gonchar and Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom.

The two are among the NHL’s elite defensemen. Lidstrom has been at the top of the list for many seasons, while Gonchar has worked his way into that group.

In recent years, Lidstrom has taken personal possession of the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman. He has claimed the title five times in the past six seasons. Only Bobby Orr (8) and Doug Harvey (7) have won it more times. And, Lidstrom is a finalist this season.

Nicklas Lidstrom

“He is really good. He has been the best defenseman in the NHL for the last few years. We consider Gonchar is right there as well,” Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. “They have an elite defenseman and we have one, too. They have some world-class players and so do we. That’s why I think this is going to be an exciting series. There’s a lot of speed and a lot of intensity and a lot of great goaltending from both sides. We’re looking forward to it. We’re going to be well-prepared. There are a lot of hours to put in to try to break down everything they do.

“We’re focusing on us. When we’re focusing on our game and, when we’re doing the right thing and paying attention to detail, we’re a successful team. It’s always an advantage when you know the other team. They don’t know us well and we don’t know them well, so I think they will concentrate on themselves and we’ll concentrate on ourselves.”

Meanwhile, Gonchar has worked hard at developing his defensive game. One of the NHL’s top-scoring defensemen throughout his 13-year NHL career, Gonchar has turned into an elite all-around blueliner the past couple seasons in Pittsburgh.

He is looking forward to playing against Lidstrom. The two have gone head-to-head in international play, but have met rarely during recent NHL seasons since their teams are in different conferences.

“What can you say about a guy who is probably one of the best defensemen to ever play hockey? He has the whole package. He controls the puck on the power play; he’s great defensively; he plays a lot of minutes for them. He does everything,” Gonchar said. “It’s not going to be easy to play against him, but at the same time, when you’re playing in the Stanley Cup Final, you know it’s not going to be easy. So, we have to be ready for it. He plays well, position-wise. Our forwards have to do a good job to make sure they give him a tough time.”

The same could be said about Gonchar.

“Both of those defensemen are tough to play against,” said Penguins winger Adam Hall, who played against both defensemen during his NHL career. “They are solid at both ends of the ice and they have that offensive mindset and they are so skilled they can make plays happen, whether it’s on the power play or even strength. They are both pretty reliable defensively as well. I am just glad Gonchar is on our team.”

Sergei Gonchar

Lidstrom has garnered more individual attention throughout his 15-year career. That’s to be expected since the 38-year-old was part of three Stanley Cup championship teams in Detroit. Gonchar, who is 34, is looking for his first championship.

Nevertheless, the two are very similar on the ice. Both are European players – Gonchar is from Russia and Lidstrom is from Sweden – both are listed at nearly the same height (Gonchar 6-2, Lidstrom 6-1), both are left-handed shots, log huge portions of ice time and are key figures in their teams’ special teams.

Oh yeah, the two are the NHL’s highest-scoring defensemen in this decade. Since 2000, Lidstrom has more points than any other blueliner (442), while Gonchar is right behind (431). No other defenseman comes close to matching that production. Dallas defenseman Sergei Zubov is third on the list with 352.

However, Gonchar has scored more goals (111) since 2000. Lidstrom is fourth with 91, behind Gonchar, Rob Blake (102) and Mathieu Schneider (97).

“It’s hard to compare these two guys,” said Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis, who played against both Lidstrom and Gonchar during his NHL career as well. “They are really, really good players, both of them. They are agile out there and tough to forecheck. You can barely beat them one-on-one. They are in another class. They are the kind of defensemen that make you win championships.

“Even defensively, they are out there on every power play and killing every penalty. It’ll be a big battle to see who comes out with Stanley Cup.”

Hall looks forward to facing Lidstrom and is glad Gonchar gets a chance to show what he can do in the Stanley Cup Final.

“At this level when you get to the Final, you expect the best. They have a very talented team over there and that’s why they made it this far. It’s going to be a good test for us,” he said. “We’re just happy Gonchar is on our team because we have so much confidence in what he does for us – the way he moves the puck, the way he runs the power play and everything else he does for us. He’s one of those guys we look to in a lot of situations.”

Both Lidstrom and Gonchar possess another key trait – leadership. Lidstrom is Detroit’s captain, while Gonchar is an alternate captain with the Penguins. Pittsburgh’s players know Gonchar’s impact goes beyond having a letter on his jersey.

Sergei Gonchar has played a key role in developing the Penguins' young defensemen like Ryan Whitney.

“I don’t know about Lidstrom, but Gonch is really calm and smiles all the time and keeps everything positive. He’s really helping the young guys, especially Evgeni Malkin,” Dupuis said.

“I can’t speak about Lidstrom because I have only played against him,” Hall said. “Gonchar is a great guy to have in the room. He has that calm demeanor that is just really settling for the whole team, whether we’re down a goal or up a goal. That keeps us on an even keel. When you watch his play out there, he always looks so calm with the puck. I think that kind of helps settle the rest of us down. He’s definitely a leader for us.”

The Penguins face a formidable task going against Lidstrom and the Red Wings. They are just going to keep doing what got them to this point.

“I don’t think we look at it any differently than we would going against the top defensive pairing from any team. It’s a great challenge,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “With Lidstrom, positionally, he is great. He has a good stick and he’s solid. So, those are little challenges within the game that make it fun. That’s part of competing and we all love to compete.”

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