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Gonchar To Miss 4-6 Months

by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins
STOCKHOLM, Sweden – Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar will undergo arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder Thursday and miss four to six months – although, as general manager Ray Shero noted Tuesday, that means he’ll be back before the end of the regular season

“It’s not the worst-case scenario, because in the worst case, he would have been out the entire season,” Shero said. “With a four-to-six month time frame, we’re going to get him back at some point. And when he comes back, we’re going to have a spot for him.”

Gonchar, 34, one of the league’s elite and most underrated defenseman, suffered ligament and cartilage damage during his first shift of the Penguins’ first pre-season game Sept. 20 against Tampa Bay. After consulting with medical specialists and considering various options, the decision was made to have the arthroscopic procedure.

UPMC physician Dr. Mark Rodosky will perform the surgery Thursday in Pittsburgh.

“We just wanted Sergei to make a decision that he would be comfortable with -- and his mood is good,” Shero said. “I think he’s clear in what he wants to do. This is the best thing for his career and the best chance to hopefully fix it permanently and come back this year.”

In the meantime, the Penguins will have to shuffle their defense corps for the second time of the pre-season. Another skilled defenseman, Ryan Whitney, underwent foot surgery on August 16 and is in the midst of a rehab program that will take three to five months.

Gonchar and Whitney provided much of the offense from the Penguins’ blue line during their run to the Stanley Cup Finals last season, and both were key elements of the Penguins’ power play.

In their absence, youngsters such as 21-year-old Kris Letang and 23-year-old Alex Goligoski will have to help fill the void.

“As a group, our defensemen are going to have to step up – and that creates an opportunity for some players,” Shero said. “Kris has played at this level. Alex had a good year last year in the AHL. We’re going to give them opportunities, but we don’t want to put undue pressure on them. We’ll continue to evaluate our team as we go along.”

Letang had six goals and 11 assists for 17 points in 63 games with the Penguins last season, taking a regular shift on defense for a team that won the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference championships. Goligoski excelled for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL, going 10-28-38 in 70 regular season games and then catching fire in the playoffs, recording four goals and 24 assists for 28 points in 23 games as the Baby Penguins reached the Calder Cup Finals.

They’ll also have plenty of support from the Penguins’ five veterans on defense – Brooks Orpik, Mark Eaton, Rob Scuderi, Hal Gill and Darryl Sydor.

“And, at some point in the next two or three months, we’re going to get Ryan Whitney back – so that will help,” Shero said.

The Penguins, of course, have plenty of experience in dealing with injuries that sideline key players for extended periods of time. Last season they lost both Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury for several months, yet other players stepped up in their absence and the team strengthened itself for a long playoff run.

“We’re going to need all hands on deck, but we’ve dealt with injuries and adversity before,” Shero said.

“It’s going to be a challenge for us, but it’s something we experienced as a team last year,” Crosby said. “Some guys will have an opportunity to have a bigger role on our team than they might have had before.”

Gonchar has scored 615 points in 904 career NHL games, and he has ranked second in scoring among NHL defensemen in each of the past two seasons, so his raw numbers will be difficult to replace. He also was a mainstay on the team’s lethal power play, both an offensive force and a calming influence. And the concurrent absence of Whitney magnifies the hole.

But Letang and Goligoski are talented young players who may take advantage of an unexpected window of opportunity, and center Evgeni Malkin may take advantage of more responsibility at the point on the power play. Under what would seem like extreme circumstances for many teams, the young, skilled Penguins have intriguing options. And they are undeterred.

“We all realize how important Gonch is to our team,” Crosby said. “He means so much at both ends of the ice and in the locker room. But we’ve handled this kind of thing as a team before. We’ve got to handle it again.”

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