Pressure on Gonchar enormous

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It is grossly unfair for the Penguins to ask a 34-year-old defenseman who hasn't played in a real game since June because of shoulder surgery to resurrect their hockey club from the dead and carry it to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

That won't stop 'em, of course.

"It's like making a huge trade," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said of Sergei Gonchar's return, perhaps tomorrow night in Toronto.

That enthusiasm -- or is it just wishful thinking? -- is understandable. The Penguins need Gonchar desperately. His season-long absence is the biggest reason the team is out of the playoff picture as of this morning. He would have been worth 8 or 10 more points, minimum.

"No use thinking about that now," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said.

What's important is how many points Gonchar will mean for the Penguins in the 26 games ahead. He should provide a big lift for the power play, for sure. How could he not help that sickly bunch? But beyond that? After missing so much time? Coming back from a major injury?

"No," Gonchar said, flatly, yesterday when asked if it's fair to look at him as the team savior. "Who knows what's going to happen? I hope things go well, but I can't say that for sure."

Probably not the answer you were looking for, right?

It gets worse.

Gonchar clearly isn't as comfortable with his playing status as the doctors are. He was cleared to play Wednesday but chose to sit out the 2-1 shootout win against San Jose that night. You know hockey players. They are some of the toughest people in sports. They routinely play with stitches, with strains and sprains, even with broken bones. But Gonchar wouldn't even commit to playing tomorrow night. That's not a good sign.

"He'll play when he's ready," Therrien said.

Not that he and the team have any choice but to be patient with Gonchar. They know he won't be able to help until his head is every bit as right as his shoulder.

"My main concern is my timing," Gonchar said.

All agree it's nice that Gonchar has practiced well. "He looks good. He looks strong," Therrien said. But all concerned also know the harsh truth: The speed of an NHL game can't be replicated in practice. Gonchar realizes he's in for shock when he starts playing. At least in the beginning, it won't be the same No. 55 out there who played so brilliantly last season when the Penguins made it to the Stanley Cup final.

Therrien and the team will be happy if Gonchar merely can get the power play going. That's where Gonchar probably will get most of his minutes in his early games back. The power play has been lost much of the season without him. It's in a 10-for-96 slump that dropped it to 23rd in the league (16.3 percent) going into the games last night. In the past 23 games, it produced no goals 14 times.

The game against San Jose was fairly typical. The Penguins had power plays late in regulation and in overtime but couldn't score and were lucky to win on Crosby's shootout goal. A year ago, they would have converted one of those chances.

Then again, a year ago, they had Gonchar.

"It would be like Detroit losing [Nicklas] Lidstrom," Therrien said. "Their power play would end up suffering. That's only natural.

"You don't replace a Gonchar. He's the quarterback of our power play. He makes it go. He gets the puck through. He knows when to shoot it and when to make a play. He has poise with that puck."

Added Crosby, "He has some special talents that you don't see from players every day."

The problem is Gonchar hasn't used those skills since the Cup final against Detroit. His left shoulder was dislocated in the Penguins' first exhibition game Sept. 20. He had surgery Oct. 2.

"It's going to take time," Gonchar said of his game.

Unfortunately, time is running out on the Penguins.

Still, they are willing to take their chances with Gonchar, clearly hoping he'll get it all together sooner rather than later. Again, what choice do they have? General manager Ray Shero isn't likely to add an impact player of Gonchar's caliber before the March 4 trade deadline. There doesn't appear to be a Marian Hossa-like trade out there this year.

"[Gonchar] will add confidence to our team just by being on the ice," Therrien said.

"He's just so calm under pressure," goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury added. "That calmness spreads to everyone on the team."

Gonchar didn't seem so convinced when he headed for an off-ice workout after practice at Southpointe. He has never been under this kind of pressure, when so many are expecting so much from him so soon. He doesn't appear to like it much.

"I hope I can make a difference," Gonchar said, "but I'm not making any promises."

The shoulder is fine.

The head still needs a little work.

Ron Cook can be reached at .


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