Q: Sergei Gonchar seems very physical lately. During (Game 3 of the Ottawa series), he creamed a few Senators and shouldered at least one off the puck. He's also seemed much more willing to play the body during the last few weeks of the season and the beginning of the series, as well. I don't remember this physical dimension to his game. Is it a new thing or has he shown flashes of it before that you've seen?
Bob Buchko, Raleigh, N.C.
MOLINARI: Although Gonchar was credited with just four hits during the first three games against Ottawa -- Brooks Orpik and Ryan Malone were tied for the team lead with 12 each -- he certainly has had more of a physical presence in recent weeks than his history suggested.
Even when he's been at his best in the past -- and that can be awfully good -- hitting wasn't a prominent feature in Gonchar's game, and he's still not going to show up on anyone's list of the league's most ferocious body-checkers.
Nonetheless, he has been playing the body more frequently and vigorously than in the past, which might reflect the confidence that comes from having the rest of his game be at such a high level most of the time. Gonchar had an excellent regular season and is a safe bet to get significant support in the Norris Trophy voting although, like every other defenseman in the NHL, he's pretty much a lock to finish behind Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom.
Gonchar, by the way, averaged .72 hits per game during the regular season. His playoff average through three games -- admittedly, a sampling that's probably too small to be significant -- is 1.33.
Q: There's been quite a bit of talk about not having the money to keep the current team together, and how a long playoff run will make it impossible to keep Marian Hossa. But doesn't a long playoff run mean that the team is making more money, and therefore would be able to afford (to spend) more next season?
Scott, Austin, Texas
MOLINARI: The Penguins' ownership made it known months ago that it is willing to spend at, or at least near, the NHL's salary-cap maximum during the next two seasons, even if that means operating at a loss while the team continues to play at Mellon Arena, but a significant portion of their fan base didn't seem to get that message.
The issue that almost certainly will prevent the Penguins from keeping their current roster intact is not a reluctance to spend money, but the inability to pay market value for all of their core players while keeping the payroll within the salary-cap maximum imposed by the NHL's labor agreement. (That total is expected to be in the $54 million-$56 million range for 2008-09.)
The irony, of course, is that the Penguins ended up with such an impressive lineup, at least in part, because they used to be unable to afford a competitive payroll, and their low-budget lineup led to them ending up with high draft choices that netted the likes of Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Ryan Whitney.
Now that the Penguins have a collection of talent that, under the NHL's old collective bargaining agreement, might have had the chance to develop into a dynasty of sorts, the labor agreement that the franchise needed to remain viable will prevent it from doing so.
Odds are you'll hear some grumbling about the current system from Penguins partisans if someone like Hossa and/or Ryan Malone leaves via free agency because general manager Ray Shero simply couldn't fit their salaries under the cap, but those people should try to remember that, without the fiscal framework established by the CBA put in place in 2005, the franchise might well be based elsewhere now.