RALEIGH, N.C. -- Sitting in his locker stall after practice yesterday at RBC Center, Sergei Gonchar pointed to his upper right calf. Even while covered by the lower portion of his uniform, it was markedly larger than the left.
"See how big I am now?" he said. "It's not like I built those muscles overnight."
For a couple reasons, the Penguins' defenseman can joke a little about the brace he wears to support his right knee.
First, his team stands on the cusp of advancing to the Stanley Cup final for the second year in a row. The Penguins have a 3-0 series lead against Carolina in the Eastern Conference final going into Game 4 tonight.
Second, having to wear a contraption to reinforce that knee seems minor compared with what he thought he might be going through about now -- sitting out and tending to a major injury.
"At one point, I thought I was done for the season," Gonchar said of the first day or so after he was knocked out of Game 4 of the second round when he and Washington winger Alex Ovechkin slammed knees.
He missed two games before returning for Game 7 that series and getting an assist in the Penguins' 6-2 win.
"All of a sudden I played, and my body reacted well to it," Gonchar said. "Then, I recognized there is a good chance that it will get better and better with every game. Fortunately, it's happened.
"I'm slowly making progress. It's not going to go away overnight. I'm getting better and better with every game."
Despite a decrease in ice time, Gonchar has three assists in the four games since he came back. He is second among NHL defensemen in the playoffs with 12 points, including two goals.
Regarded as the Penguins' best defenseman at both ends of the ice, Gonchar is the quarterback of the team's power play and likely its best at starting plays from his end.
He is doing those things with no appreciable dropoff in performance since the injury, perhaps other than being a bit slow on the chase a few times the puck and a penalty-killer have gotten behind him -- something coach Dan Bylsma attributes to fatigue since Gonchar often plays most of the two minutes on a power play, not the injury.
"I haven't really noticed much of a difference," said regular defense partner Brooks Orpik.
Bylsma has welcomed Gonchar's return to the ice and return to form.
"He's probably one of our better defensemen at activating and supporting our rush out of the [defensive] zone," Bylsma said. "He's been doing that quite a bit the last few games. So, he just adds that element to our [defense] -- the puck-moving element, the support to the other players, and moving the puck out of the [defensive] zone and into the [offensive zone on the] power play."
Gonchar was pretty regularly playing more than 25 minutes a game in the postseason before the injury. He logged only 15:06 his first game back but made up for the extra time with the boost he gave his teammates.
"I remember that morning skate we had in Washington and he was there," Orpik said. "I don't know if it was just the Game 7 or if he had something to do with it, but it seemed like everyone had a lot more energy, and guys were really loose."
Against the Hurricanes, Gonchar has averaged 20:30 per game as Bylsma has stuck with the seven-man defense -- one more than usual.
It's not a scenario Bylsma particularly likes, and the coach could switch back to his main six defensemen and a full contingent of 12 forwards at any point, which would no doubt push Gonchar's minutes back up.
Shelly Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1721.