Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar took another important step at Monday afternoon’s practice in his road to recovery from a shoulder injury. He wore a black jersey.
Gonchar was officially cleared for contact by the team’s medical staff so the blueliner discarded the red “no contact” jersey that he wore the previous three weeks in favor of the traditional black practice sweater.
“That’s another step,” head coach Michel Therrien said. “He can start contact. It’s going to be a matter of time before he’s back in the lineup. We don’t want to rush things. It’s going to be up to Gonch as to when he’s going to feel, first of all, comfortable with the contact and after that we can start to think about putting him in the lineup. But in the meantime it’s good news to see him get some contact and get involved in drills physically.”
“(Monday) was the first day that I took it off,” Gonchar said of the red jersey. “So far everything is good but I have to wait until tonight to see how my shoulder reacts, even the next couple of days and see how it’s going to be. In a couple of days I’ll see the doctor again. There’s no time frame or nothing. You just have to go day-by-day and see how it is.”
Gonchar dislocated his left shoulder on a hit from David Koci of the Tampa Bay Lightning in a preseason game Sept. 20. He underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair cartilage and ligament damage.
So far, Gonchar’s rehab has been right on schedule but the All-Star defenseman still isn’t able to put a finger on a target date for his return.
“How can I give you a target date? I don’t know how my shoulder is going to feel tonight,” Gonchar said. “Maybe there will be swelling and I’m not going to feel good. I don’t want to lie to you and say anything and promise something. I’m just going to go day-by-day and we’ll wait and see how it’s going to be.
Everything is going well and we’re going in the right direction. We just have to be patient and be smart because you don’t want to come back too soon and then be down for the year. You have to be smart in what you do. - Sergei Gonchar
“I’ve been out for such a long time. I’m skating and finally skating with the team. It’s exciting. I’m looking forward to the trip (to Montreal) and traveling with the guys. Everything is going well and we’re going in the right direction. We just have to be patient and be smart because you don’t want to come back too soon and then be down for the year. You have to be smart in what you do.”
Gonchar returned to practice for the Penguins Jan. 15 but has been limited in the drills he could participate in until his shoulder was physically able to handle contact. Monday, was his first chance to go through all the practice drills.
“I did some two-on-twos and neutral zone stuff,” he said. “I was doing it with everybody. It’s not only helping my shoulder but it’s helping my timing. When I come back I have to make sure that I stay on pace with the guys.”
Adjusting to the timing and speed of the game is something Gonchar will have to deal with once he returns.
“You have to know that being away for so long, he won’t be at his best right from the first game,” Savard said. “He didn’t really have a training camp. I would expect on the power play it’s a little different. I think he can step on and do a good job pretty quickly. The five-on-five and penalty killing, we have to give him some time. Gonchar, the power play right from the start should help.”
The Penguins power play has missed Gonchar, who has quarterbacked the man-advantage opportunities ever since he signed with Pittsburgh in 2005.
“It’s no surprise that we missed him during the course of the season,” fellow blueliner Rob Scuderi said. “Certainly, he’s a big boost to our special teams. He plays both (power play and penalty kill). It will be good to have him back because he’s been a rock back there for us.”
“He sees the ice so well,” Savard said of Gonchar's power-play strengths. “He passes so well. He can shoot the puck. His passing skills are way up there. He can move laterally to get away from the checker. He’s very confident that he can move either way, left, right. In a squeeze play, he can make that affective pass. He will shoot. He’s got a mix in there and that’s hard to defend.”
Again, the Penguins are preaching patience with Gonchar’s return. But even though he’s still a few weeks away, it was nice just seeing him back in black.
“It’s great news seeing him in a different jersey than the red one, that’s for sure,” Savard said. “He brings a lot of skill. He brings experience. He’s probably one of the best in the league on the power play. He does a good job five-on-five. We’re going to be pleased for him to come back.