It was a short flight from Pittsburgh to Washington Friday night, but a happy one for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Because along with their gear and clothes, they packed the momentum that comes with winning two straight games to even their Eastern Conference Semifinal series against the Washington Capitals.
The goal now is to figure how to carry that momentum into Game 5 on Saturday with the status of one of their key figures in limbo.
The apparent knee injury suffered by defenseman Sergei Gonchar leaves his immediate status up in the air; if Gonchar can't play, it creates a tremendous hole in the Penguins' lineup.
"I think in terms of replacing Sergei Gonchar, you don't get to replace (him)," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "But we have depth at the defensive position for a reason."
Playing without Gonchar shouldn't be a strange position for the Penguins to be in. Gonchar suffered a shoulder injury in the first preseason game, and subsequent surgery sidelined him until mid-February. His return, however, coincided with Bylsma's arrival and the Penguins' surge in the standings. He had 19 points in 26 games, and his 5 power-play goals led the team's defensemen. His first-period goal tied Game 4, and gave him 9 points in 10 postseason games.
The only comfort the Penguins can take is while it's potentially a huge hole in their lineup, it's one they've already experienced. And players who were shifted into different roles in Gonchar's absence should have little problem returning to those spots, if needed.
"We missed Gonch for a long time, the first half of the season," Sidney Crosby
said. "We were forced to play in a few different positions, and we need to use that experience and find a way to still be productive without him. There's no choice now."
If Gonchar can't play, it's likely Philippe Boucher will move into the lineup in his place. Boucher has played just once this postseason, replacing Kris Letang
in Game 5 of the Penguins' first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Regardless of who goes into the lineup, the expectations don't change.
"I think our team knows how to play whether we have a full lineup or if we have to replace an injury like this," Bylsma said. "I think our team will be confident going forward that we can do it. And we don't have to change something or do something miraculous. Maybe we have to simplify our power play a little bit more, maybe make an adjustment there. Other guys are going to have to pick up the load. We have depth in that position for this reason. You can't replace (Gonchar), but we expect the guy going in and the lineup that we have will be able to get the job done."
That task might have been made a bit easier with the 5-3 win in Game 4. While playing back-to-back games this time of year is a serious challenge, it's even harder for the team that lost the front end. That mental baggage can weigh on a team, something the Penguins hope they can use to their advantage.
"We were looking at their bench and they looked a lot more tired than we did," defenseman Brooks Orpik
said, "so that was something we could take advantage of."
And while the losing team might be emotionally drained, the winning team, though just as physically tired, wants to get going as soon as possible to keep the good feelings flowing.
"Maybe having won this game, having the quick turnover helps us," defenseman Mark Eaton said. "We can get right back on the horse and hopefully pick up where we left off tonight."
Bill Guerin, a veteran of 17 seasons of NHL battles, said the momentum gained from the Game 4 win only goes as far as a player allows it, and the Penguins can take nothing for granted. Orpik seemed to agree with him.
"It (the series) is even now and they still have home-ice advantage," he said. "Going into the series we knew we'd have to win one there. If we can win one there then I'll say we have control of it."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Adam Kimelman | NHL.com Staff Writer