Gonchar's playing status adds to the many variables for Game 7


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WASHINGTON -- For some, this will be a first.

For others, a reminder of what 60 minutes of winner-takes-all hockey is like.

For all, an experience that will remain with them forever and leave an indelible mark on their careers.

There is nothing in hockey like a Game 7, and the Penguins and Washington will play one at 7:08 tonight at the Verizon Center.

The adrenaline will come in waves. So will the emotion. And the crowd noise.

And, for the eventual loser -- the team that will watch the other compete for the Eastern Conference championship -- so will the tears.


Tonight

Matchup: Penguins at Washington Capitals, 7:08 p.m. today, Verizon Center, Washington.

TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9).

Series: Tied, 3-3.


"Someone's going to go home," said Penguins center Sidney Crosby, who will be competing in his first Game 7 at any level. "So, it's pretty clear that you have to leave it out there."

With the stakes so high and so clear when a series is tied, 3-3, there's no need to manufacture drama.

But there will be an unscheduled infusion of it today because Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who was injured by a knee-on-knee hit from Capitals left winger Alex Ovechkin in Game 4 Friday, skated during an optional practice at Southpointe yesterday.

Gonchar did not subject his damaged right knee to any major stress and no one suggested he is a lock to be in uniform tonight, but it is at least a possibility.

"I have to wait and see how my body reacts," Gonchar said. "I can be 100 percent optimistic now, but if I wake up [today] and my knee isn't bending, it doesn't matter."

If Gonchar -- who allowed that he initially expected his injury to be "much worse" -- has significant swelling this morning, it's hard to imagine that he will play. If not, he will test it again at the game-day skate, after which a decision on dressing him will be made.

"We have a plan with him in the lineup," defenseman Hal Gill said. "And we have a plan with him not being there."

If Gonchar plays, the Penguins likely will dress seven defensemen for the third game in a row, and it's conceivable that he could be deployed strictly as a power-play specialist.

What tangible contribution Gonchar could make is impossible to say, but his mere presence could have a profound impact on his teammates. Anyone remember Willis Reed?

"We're not expecting it," Crosby said. "But it would be great if he could get out there."

Fact is, any variable could be enough to alter the outcome of a series in which five of the six games have been decided by one goal, three in overtime.

Some players, particularly Crosby and Ovechkin, have exceeded the most outrageous expectations anyone had for them. Others, such as Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and Capitals winger Alexander Semin, have not always performed to their vast potential.

But let Fleury make a spectacular game-saving stop tonight, or Semin score a critical goal, and any shortcomings they had during the previous six games will be forgotten.

When a series reaches Game 7, everything that happened previously is reduced to background noise.

This series has been shaped not only by megastars such as Crosby, Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, but by foot soldiers such as Rob Scuderi and David Steckel, and history shows that the impact a player has in a seventh game isn't necessarily tied to his public profile.

Consider that when the Penguins beat Buffalo in their most recent Game 7, in the second round in 2001, it was low-scoring defenseman Darius Kasparaitis, not Mario Lemieux or Jaromir Jagr, who got a puck past Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek in overtime.

The Penguins are 5-4 in Game 7s, 3-0 when playing them on the road. The Capitals are 2-5 in them overall, 2-4 at home and 0-2 against the Penguins.

Interesting numbers, but utterly irrelevant tonight. Think these Penguins will have any extra energy because the franchise won a Game 7 in New Jersey a decade ago, or that Washington will fixate on the goal Pat Lafontaine of the New York Islanders scored in the fourth overtime of a Game 7 defeat in 1987?

No, this game will be all about the present. And doing something that will be remembered far into the future.


Dave Molinari can be reached at dmolinari@post-gazette.com . First Published May 13, 2009 4:00 AM


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