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Gonchar relishes playoff opportunity with Senators

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Sergei Gonchar came to the capital to help the Senators chase a Stanley Cup and he'll get that chance starting Thursday, when Ottawa opens the 2012 playoffs in New York vs. the Rangers (Photo by Matthew Healy/OSHC).

This is why Sergei Gonchar came to Ottawa.

For the veteran blueliner, it is all about the Stanley Cup playoffs and the opportunity to chase after the most treasured prize in the game. And finally, that opportunity with his current team will arrive on Thursday, when the Senators open the post-season against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden in New York (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200).

"Playoffs is always exciting," said the 37-year-old native of Chelyabinsk, Russia. "You have a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup, which is probably the highest prize in the world. Playing in the best league, you have a chance to compete for it and it's special. We're going to have all (our) fans behind us, so it's going to be something."

It is the "something" that Gonchar had in mind when he signed a three-year contract with the Senators as a free agent two summers ago. In the spring of 2010, his Pittsburgh Penguins survived a hard-fought opening-round series against the Senators — it went six games, including a triple-overtime win by Ottawa in Game 5 — and Gonchar saw an opponent he believed was just a few pieces short of being a true Stanley Cup contender. He felt he could be one of those pieces.

But Gonchar hardly imagined the free fall the Senators would undergo last season. Their playoffs hopes were dead by January and within the next month, half a dozen veterans were unloaded, signalling the start of a rebuild for the future. The Stanley Cup playoffs seemed to be little more than a pipe dream this season.

No wonder, then, that Gonchar talks with such enthusiasm about getting his 12th chance to chase hockey's Holy Grail. He's played in three Cup finals, winning it all with the Penguins in 2009. And while facing the Eastern Conference's top seed is daunting — with 109 points, the Blueshirts were 17 better than the eighth-place Senators in the standings — the opportunity is still there to weave some post-season magic.

"It's a huge difference," Gonchar said of the Senators' surprising rebound season. "Last year, I signed (in Ottawa) and I didn't expect to have what we had. But the good thing is, it's behind us and now I'm looking forward to the playoffs. We've been much better this year and I'm looking forward to the playoffs and I'm hoping it's going to be even better there."

While the Senators entered the season carrying little in the way of expectations — most pre-season predictions had them finishing at or near the bottom of the conference — Gonchar said the team didn't see it that way.

"When you're playing in the NHL, you have 20 guys that make each other pretty competitive," he said. "We all want to prove something. When you have a season like we had last year, you want to come back and you want to be better. You want to prove it, not only to the people on the outside, but to yourselves as a group, that we can be better."

When Senators head coach Paul MacLean talks about the veteran core he relied so heavily upon in building this team, he includes Gonchar among that group. He's been a willing mentor to such young blueliners as Erik Karlsson and Jared Cowen, while contributing 37 points (5-32) to the Ottawa attack. But Gonchar, in turn, is quick to credit the man behind the bench with being perhaps the biggest reason why the Senators find themselves where they are today.

"(MacLean) is a big part of it," said Gonchar. "He changed the system, he changed the attitude in the locker room, so I think he’s a really big part of it. If you look at it, he had been with an organization (the Detroit Red Wings, as an assistant coach) that has been successful. It was an organization that had won a few times with him (there).

"Having that experience and being there gives you the ability to change things. You know what you need to do, you know how it’s supposed to be done and I think he’s done it. He’s a very big part of (our success)."

As for their matchup with the Rangers, Gonchar believes consistency is the key.

"Be ourselves," he said of what it will take to battle the Blueshirts effectively. "Play our style. Make sure we're doing it for 60 minutes. This is probably the biggest issue that we have at home, or when we've had tough times through the season, that we're not playing consistently through 60 minutes. In the playoffs, you have to do that and that's what we're going to have to focus on."

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