- The Washington Times - Friday, June 5, 2009

PITTSBURGH | Dan Bylsma deserves plenty of credit for helping the Pittsburgh Penguins morph from 10th-place also-ran to Eastern Conference champion, but his team wouldn’t be here if not for the guy who made his season debut the game before Bylsma became coach.

Sure, the Penguins found a coach to make better use of their offensive talent and linemates for Sidney Crosby near the trade deadline, but the Feb. 14 return of former Washington Capitals defenseman Sergei Gonchar from shoulder surgery remains maybe the single biggest ingredient in the team’s turnaround.

“Well, the regular season I think we were about a .500 team without him. I think a lot of the defensemen were pushed into roles that they weren’t really all that comfortable with when [Gonchar] was out,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “I don’t know; it’s funny. He’s a really quiet guy - keeps to himself, a pretty private person. But when he is in the lineup, he just seems like he has a really calming influence on everybody.”

Along with his side job as mentor and landlord to Evgeni Malkin when he first joined the Penguins, Gonchar has become one of the most reliable two-way defensemen in the NHL. He also has retained his status as one of the league’s best power-play quarterbacks, which became even more noticeable when he missed all but 25 regular-season games because of a shoulder injury suffered in the team’s first preseason contest. Pittsburgh’s power play, fourth best in the league last season, scuffled without Gonchar, and the team as a whole did as well.

“When your team is losing, obviously you’re feeling it’s probably one of the worst feelings I’ve had in my life as a hockey player because that was the first injury in my life when I was out for such a long time,” Gonchar said. “Being out, watching all those games and not being able to help your team, it’s one of those worst feelings.”

Added forward Max Talbot: “You look at our season here, at our power-play stats during the season, and you look when Sergei came back from his injury. That’s when our power play and our confidence [returned], and you know, it was a turning point of the season.”

The Penguins nearly lost Gonchar for a lengthy period again after a knee-on-knee collision with Washington’s Alex Ovechkin in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Gonchar missed Games 5 and 6, and one report said the 35-year-old would miss the rest of the playoffs.

Instead, Gonchar returned for Game 7 at Verizon Center and hasn’t missed a contest since. Not only has he led the Penguins in ice time during the Stanley Cup Finals, he also provided the winning goal on the power play in Game 3 to give him 14 points, most among defensemen in the playoffs.

“For us, obviously, when he got hurt against [the Caps] it was scary, but when he came back it was a huge boost,” Talbot said. “We know how important he is for our team - and not only our power play but the whole team.”

Added Gonchar: “At that time I really didn’t know what was going to happen. You know, the injury was there, and you never know how your body’s going to respond to it. We took the approach when we looked at it day-to-day, and I was fortunate enough that my body reacted well to the injury, and I was able to recover and play the game again.”

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