- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 9, 2009

PITTSBURGH

We’ve already seen the Pittsburgh Penguins try to survive without defenseman Sergei Gonchar this season.

It did not go well.

A coach was fired. A team that had reached the Stanley Cup Finals almost missed the playoffs.

That’s not to say Gonchar’s absence caused all that. But I’ll bet if you ask Michel Therrien, he would tell you he would still be behind the Penguins’ bench if Gonchar hadn’t missed the first 56 games of the regular season.

That’s also not to say the Penguins are doomed without Gonchar, who was assisted off the ice with 5:05 left in the first period of Game 4 Friday night after he was sent flying by a knee-on-knee hit from Alex Ovechkin.

This team has some serious heart, as it showed by beating the Washington Capitals 5-3 despite playing with five defensemen most of the night.

How about Max Talbot as a prime example of this team’s fighting spirit? After missing two golden opportunities in the third period, he buried one against Capitals goaltender Simeon Varlamov - who finally looked human - to restore the Penguins’ two-goal lead with 5:14 left.

But if Gonchar does not return to the lineup, a significant challenge becomes downright daunting. We’re talking about the Penguins’ power-play quarterback, their third-leading playoff scorer, their runaway leader in ice time and their predominant calming influence.

As for the hit, opinion was split among press-box observers. Many felt Ovechkin - who was assessed a minor penalty for tripping - should have received a major and a game misconduct and should be suspended for intent to injure.

It did look like Ovechkin turned his skate at the last instant, just before he drove his right knee into Gonchar’s. But was it any more an intent to injure than Penguins wing Chris Kunitz cross-checking Varlamov in the mask in Game 2?

Kunitz was fined but not suspended. Ovechkin might get the same treatment. It’s hard to imagine the NHL would have the guts to suspend one of its marquee names from one of the most publicized and anticipated series in league history.

Other observers felt Gonchar would have been fine if he had taken the hit instead of trying to avoid it, and that even if “tripping” wasn’t the right call (“kneeing” would have been), a minor was all that was justified.

The referee who made the call, by the way, was Brad Watson, the same guy who blew an early whistle in Game 3 of the Detroit-Anaheim series, taking away a late tying goal from the Red Wings.

Early in the second period, a Penguins spokesman said Gonchar was “questionable” for the rest of the game. He did not return, and the immediate report was that he is questionable for Game 5 Saturday night, as well.

Gonchar scored a huge goal in the first period, about three minutes after the Capitals had taken a 1-0 lead 36 seconds into the game, and his presence on the power play was sorely missed.

The Penguins lost momentum in the second period largely because their power play generated nothing in three attempts sans Gonchar. Coach Dan Bylsma tried Evgeni Malkin in Gonchar’s spot on the right point, with Miroslav Satan up front.

Nothing.

Then, Bylsma tried Mark Eaton with Kris Letang on the points.

Nothing.

To add insult to injury, Washington’s top offensive defenseman finally announced his presence in the series late in the second period.

That would be Mike Green, the leading scorer among NHL defensemen this season. He stepped around Tyler Kennedy and Talbot and beat Marc-Andre Fleury with a wrist shot to cut the Penguins’ lead to 3-2.

After Sidney Crosby restored the Penguins’ two-goal lead at 4:16 of the third period on a beautiful pass from Satan, the Penguins gave up a short-handed goal to Milan Jurcina.

They survived, largely on heart. How long they could continue to do so without Gonchar is a question they don’t want to be forced to answer but might have to.

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