Former Penguins defenseman makes first appearance here since leaving for Ottawa
October 18, 2010 8:00 AM
Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP
Canadiens' Tomas Plekanec leaps in front Senators goalie Brian Elliot as Senators defenseman Sergei Gonchar looks on.
By Shelly Anderson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There is every chance some of the Penguins will be tapping their sticks on the Consol Energy Center ice tonight and calling for the puck from Sergei Gonchar.
Just like old times, only not quite.
In this case, the home club would be trying to tempt its former member to turn the puck over.
"I can tell you from experience after I left Washington, it seems like you want to pass the puck to the guy on the other team," Gonchar, now with Ottawa, said by phone. "It's going to be kind of hard that way."
He will be playing in Pittsburgh as a visiting player for the first time since he signed with the Penguins in 2005 coming out of the NHL lockout. The Senators play the Penguins at 7:08 p.m.
Gonchar, 36, the Penguins' top defenseman the past five seasons, was their most notable loss during offseason free agency. He signed a three-year, $16.5 million deal with the Senators moments after the July 1 frenzy started.
It hasn't been the smoothest transition for him. Ottawa is 1-3-1, and the power play he quarterbacks ranks last in the NHL thanks to a 5 percent success rate, with one goal in 20 chances.
Gonchar has one point for Ottawa, an assist that did not come on the power play in a 5-1 loss to Toronto Oct. 9. That's not for a lack of playing time. He was fourth in the league through Sunday with an average of 27 minutes, 12 seconds of ice time.
With the Penguins, Gonchar had at least 50 points every season except 2008-09, which was shortened because of shoulder surgery. He ran the man-advantage from the right point, distributing the puck to top-tier forwards that included Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and often sliding over to the center point to unleash a wicked and accurate slap shot.
He is on the left point with Ottawa.
"I wouldn't say it's the easiest adjustment, but I've played there before [in Washington] with [left-hander] Adam Oates and [right-hander] Peter Bondra shooting the puck," Gonchar said. "In Pittsburgh, Evgeni and Sidney are both left-handers."
The Senators' two main snipers, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson, shoot right-handed. Gonchar is a left-handed shot.
His transition to a new club off the ice has been much smoother.
"It was an easy adjustment because it was a good group of guys, and hockey is everything here," Gonchar said.
"You can sense it in the street. You can sense it in the arena. They're always talking about hockey. There are little kids playing hockey everywhere."
It's not that he has quickly turned the page on the Penguins with whom he won a Stanley Cup in 2009.
"It's going to be tough the first couple of games," Gonchar said.. "You've been with them so many years and now you're playing against them."
Gonchar, who was drafted in the first round by the Capitals and spent more than a decade with them, often talked about feeling a little something extra playing against Washington, so it is no surprise his emotions are piqued for the game tonight.
Gonchar was among the Penguins who toured Consol Energy Center in the spring when it was nearing completion.
"I could see how nice everything was planned," he said. "I'm sure when I see it, it's going to be something special. I've seen it on TV.
"People in Pittsburgh have done a wonderful job searching for all the best things. I'm looking forward to seeing it."
The fact that he will face the Penguins in something other than the old Mellon/Civic Arena will make the game easier.
"It's not a building that I've been in for five years, that I won a Cup in," he said.
The most familiar encounter undoubtedly will be with Malkin.
During the 2004-05 NHL lockout, Gonchar played with Malkin, then 19, for Metallurg in Malkin's hometown, Magnitogorsk, in the Russian SuperLeague. They have also been teammates for Russia at the Olympics and world championships.
When Malkin, the second overall draft pick in 2004, joined the Penguins for 2006-07 season, Gonchar stepped in as friend and big brother. Malkin lived with the Gonchar family until buying a house during the 2008-09 season.
Malkin is now the only Russian-speaking player with the Penguins, but Gonchar is sure the star forward is no longer the sheltered young man he used to be.
"He's more comfortable language-wise," Gonchar said. "Knowing him, I can see he's a guy who's going to be fine. He has a nice personality and gets along with everyone very well. He's a funny guy, something that when he's more comfortable, he's going to show it more and more."
Tonight, the two will be on opposite sides for the first time. If the opportunity arises for Malkin to lure Gonchar into a mistake, he will no doubt take it.