When Sergei Gonchar has the puck in the offensive zone, it usually ends up in the net.
Gonchar continues to be the NHL’s most-potent scoring blueliner in this decade. Since 2000, he leads all NHL defensemen in goals (95) and is second in points (349).
And, he’s showing no signs of stopping, either.
With 50 points (9+41) through 60 games, Gonchar is on pace for a career year. He is projected to finish with 68 points (12+56), which would be the best of his 12 NHL seasons. He is in the hunt for the Norris Trophy, too, as he stands two points behind Nicklas Lidstrom atop the defenseman scoring leaders.
“It’s really hard to predict what’s going to happen, but at the same time, I am trying to be involved,” Gonchar said. “I am trying to be myself, but be more focused on defense.”
As the veteran leader of the Penguins defense, Gonchar has made a conscious effort to evolve his game into an all-around attack, rather than just focusing on an offensive approach.
“It’s one of those things I was asked to do and, obviously, I am a veteran defenseman here and I have more responsibilities,” he said. “It’s one of those things that I have to do. I was working on it and I made some progress. There are still some things I want to improve on, but I am getting there.”
While Gonchar’s defensive play has improved this season, his offensive contributions have not suffered. He finished last season on a tear with 37 points (6+31) in his final 23 games. He began this season with 50 points (9+41) in his first 60 games, which gives him 87 points (15+72) in his last 83 games in a Penguins uniform.
When head coach Michel Therrien arrived in Pittsburgh in the middle of last season, his system sparked Gonchar. It’s certainly carried over to this year as Gonchar is second among all NHL defensemen in scoring through Tuesday – one point behind Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom.
“It’s helped me a lot. Once he got here and we got a new system in place, I was feeling much more comfortable and playing better,” he said. “In the beginning of the year, I knew what to expect since Day One and I was ready for it. I didn’t start as well as I expected at the beginning of last year; now I am happy where I am.”
Gonchar has embraced his leadership role among the defensemen as an alternate captain.
“I just try to do my things. I am not talking much and trying to tell them what to do or whatever,” he said. “We have a good group of defense that is capable of playing a good game. I might say a few things here and there – little things I have learned with experience – but I just tell them to go out there and play.
“We’re on the same page; we know what’s going on; we know what to do. It’s much easier when you know what your defensive partner expects from you and what everyone expects from each other. It makes it simpler for anyone.”
Ryan Whitney, one of the Penguins’ youngsters, has followed Gonchar’s lead offensively. Whitney has piled up 44 points (10+34) in 60 games to give the Penguins a potent one-two punch from the blue line.
“Ryan has great talent. He is probably one of the most-talented young guys I have seen in this game right now. He’s probably going to be a top defenseman in a year or two. He has all the skills and all the potential. It’s just a matter of time before he develops into one of the best players in the league,” Gonchar said. “We have a good chemistry. It’s nice to have two guys who can produce offense. Our team is very fortunate because we have a lot of young talent, not only up front. Marc-Andre is playing very well in goal for us. We have a good group and a good mix and that’s probably one of the reasons why we’re doing so well.”
Monday’s last-minute road loss to the Islanders snapped the Penguins winning streak at six. The Penguins went more than a month without losing a game in regulation from Jan. 10-Monday. In addition, the team had racked up at least one point in 16-straight games – the second-longest steak in franchise history. The 1992-93 Penguins earned a point in 18-straight contests (17-0-1).
“That’s something I am very happy about. It’s not only the way we’re playing, but we’re coming together,” Gonchar said. “You can see us on the road together. Every dinner we’re together. It’s really paying off on the ice. You can see how the team is really close and I believe it’s helping us a lot during the games.”
And, Gonchar is having fun.
“It’s much more exciting. It’s really fun to go to the rink and work out and skate every day,” he said. “It’s much more fun that last year, that’s for sure.”
It’s been a memorable season for Gonchar as he reached some new milestones. He tallied a career-best five points (2+3) against the Flyers on Dec. 13. He registered the 500th point of his NHL career on Nov. 25 against the New York Rangers. And, he played in his 800th NHL game against the Blackhawks on Feb. 14.
With 169 career goals, Gonchar is the all-time leading goal-scorer among defensemen who were born-and-trained in the former Soviet Union. Sandis Ozolinsh (164) and Sergei Zubov (145) are next. Gonchar (533 points) ranks third behind Zubov (716) and Ozolinsh (548) in career points from defensemen born-and-trained in the former Soviet Union.
And, Gonchar is one of only three European-born defensemen to record three 20-goal seasons. Reijo Ruotsalainen and Ozolinsh are the others. Gonchar also has two seasons with 18 goals and another with 19.