Penguins Notebook: Gonchar expects to play in Game 1

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Sergei Gonchar isn't ready to guarantee that he will be able to play in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final tonight against Carolina at Mellon Arena.

He's just awfully optimistic about it.

Gonchar, who stayed off skates the previous three days, participated in an hour-long practice at Southpointe yesterday, and was upbeat about being in uniform for the opener.

"It looks promising," he said. "I don't want to say anything [conclusive] right now, but there's a good chance."

Gonchar missed Games 5 and 6 of the Penguins' second-round series against Washington after a knee-on-knee hit by Capitals left winger Alex Ovechkinin Game 4, but returned for Game 7 and assisted on the Penguins' first goal in a 6-2 victory.

He logged a little more than 15 minutes of ice time, and had his ice time cut back severely once the Penguins were comfortably in front.

"I think it was the smart thing to do," he said. "It's better to make sure you're healthy going forward."

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said the decision on whether to play tonight will be left to Gonchar, as it would be for any injured player.

"They have to be confident they can do their job," he said. "We don't tell them that they can do their job. The trainers don't say, 'You have to get out there and do your job.'

"He has to look me in the eye and say, 'I'm ready to go out there and play my role on this team, and I'm confident I can do that.' "

Bylsma said the Penguins likely will dress 12 forwards and seven defensemen for the pregame warm-ups before deciding how many of each to use in the game.

Carolina got some encouraging medical news yesterday, too. Captain Rod Brind'Amour, who was struck near the right eye by a puck while sitting on the bench in Game 7 of the second round, practiced despite stitches and severe discoloration around his eye.

"He got through practice probably better than we all had hoped, so he said he's fine and ready to go," Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said.

Early preview

The Eastern Conference final officially will start shortly after 7:30 p.m. today.

A case could be made, though, that the first, albeit unofficial, skirmish of the series occurred April 4, when the Penguins and Hurricanes played something that looked a lot like a playoff game at RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C.

Carolina won, 3-2, in overtime, but not until the sides had produced what arguably was the most entertaining of the Penguins' 82 regular-season games.

"It was one of them," Penguins left winger Matt Cooke said. "It was definitely like a playoff game. It was fast, it was intense. There were big saves."

Carolina defenseman Anton Babchuk ended the game when he beat Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury through a screen 71 seconds into overtime, clinching a playoff berth for the Hurricanes and putting them on the road that led to Mellon Arena for Game 1.

"That was a pretty entertaining game," Bylsma said. "And I think that's what the hockey will look like in this series."

Slow starters

The Penguins have lost Games 1 and 2 in two of their past three series.

And while they were able to overcome that in the previous round against Washington, it was too great a deficit to make up in the 2008 Stanley Cup final against Detroit.

At the very least, they don't want to make a habit of needing the kind of heroics that allowed them to come back against the Capitals.

"It's definitely something special, what we did last series," Penguins center Jordan Staal said. "Obviously, we don't want to start the way we did.

Starting at home will help a little bit."

Alumni reunion

Although the Hurricanes don't have any former Penguins on their major league roster, they do have three guys -- Eric Staal, Patrick Eaves and Tuomo Ruutu -- whose brothers are, or were, part of the organization.

What's more, Carolina's front office and coaching staff are loaded with Penguins alums.

The list includes general manager Jim Rutherford, associate coach Ron Francis, assistant coach Kevin McCarthy, goaltending coach Tom Barrasso and minor league coach Jeff Daniels.


Jordan Staal, on whether he will be willing to whack his brother -- or vice versa -- if he thought it would help his team win: "I'm sure it will happen." ... The Penguins formally recalled forwards Dustin Jeffrey, Chris Minard and Jeff Taffe, defenseman Ben Lovejoy and goaltender John Curry from their minor league team in Wilkes-Barre.


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