Gonchar at the heart of the defense
Defenseman Sergei Gonchar battles for the puck with the Islanders' Steve Regier in the Penguins' 3-1 win March 27 at Mellon Arena. The defense has developed into a reliable group as it prepares for next week's playoffs.
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Sergei Gonchar knew there were questions about the Penguins' defense corps coming into this season. And that several months later, they still hadn't gone away.
Big questions. And quite a few of them.
He just didn't share the concerns of those who feared the group threatened to be a serious question -- if not a flat-out liability -- during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"Not really," Gonchar said, "because I knew what we were capable of."
Regardless of the reason for his confidence, whether it was blind optimism or a dead-on assessment of the unit's assets and abilities, it seems to have been well-founded because it has developed into a reliable group as the Penguins prepare for the regular-season finale at 3:08 p.m. Sunday in Philadelphia.
That doesn't guarantee it will hold up under the stresses it will face when the playoffs begin next week -- whoever the Penguins play figures to try to pressure and punish their defense as much as possible -- but, at this point, there's no good reason to doubt that it can.
"We can still improve," Gonchar said. "But we're getting there."
- Sunday: Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers, 3 p.m.
- Where: Wachovia Center, Philadelphia.
- TV: FSN Pittsburgh.
Although the Penguins are carrying seven defensemen -- Gonchar, Ryan Whitney, Kristopher Letang, Brooks Orpik, Darryl Sydor, Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill -- they will dress six for most games. That's why Letang sat out their 2-1 loss in New York Monday, and Sydor spent their 4-2 victory against Philadelphia two nights later in street clothes.
The Penguins won't, under most circumstances, use all seven in the same game because that not only leaves them short one forward, but tends to disrupt pairings and affect workloads on the blue line.
"We've tried dressing seven a few times, and it's tough to manage back there," said assistant coach Andre Savard, who oversees the defense. "Sometimes, you have more guys unhappy, so you're better off just going with six."
Still, having a spare, capable body on hand not only provides a little insurance against the injuries that are inevitable during the playoffs, but also encourages competition for playing time.
"We have seven guys who can play well and do the job," Gill said. "That's a nice problem."
One of the major plusses of the Penguins' defense is its blend of diverse talents and styles. Gonchar, Whitney and Letang are best-known for their offensive games, Gill, Orpik and Scuderi focus mostly on defense, and Sydor can contribute at both ends.
"We have a good mix," Savard said.
The cornerstone is Gonchar, who should turn up on a lot of Norris Trophy ballots next week. He not only was the No. 2 scorer among NHL defensemen going into last night, trailing Norris favorite Nicklas Lidstrom by two points, but routinely is matched against the opponent's best forwards.
"People think he's strictly offensive, which is far from the truth," Savard said. "For two years, he's played well against the top lines. He loves that challenge and has responded really well."
Gonchar's partner when the season began was Mark Eaton, but he suffered a potentially season-ending knee injury in December. Gonchar currently plays alongside Orpik, who inherited that role after Scuderi went out with a broken finger Feb. 26.
"We lost Eaton, and I thought that was a big loss," Savard said. "The progression of Orpik has compensated quite a bit. He's improved a lot."
General manager Ray Shero put the final piece of his defense in place, at least for this season, at the trade deadline, when he sent two draft choices to Toronto for Gill. After struggling for a few games, Gill has added a physical presence and steady play in the defensive end.
"We had problems with our coverage in front of the net, where we didn't have a big defenseman," Savard said. "A really big defenseman, who takes up a lot of room and can [clear] rebounds and move guys around."
That's Gill's primary job. Everyone on this defense has one, and all are executing them pretty efficiently these days.
"We know the system, we know each other," Gonchar said. "That's obviously a big part of it. If you put all those things together, you can see why it's improving."
First Published April 4, 2008 12:00 am