- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Washington Capitals defenseman Sergei Gonchar can sum up his season in one word: “weird.” Weird as in the Caps’ three-time All-Star leading all skaters in ice time and defensemen in points and ranking second in assists while having one of the NHL’s worst defensive ratings.

“I don’t think I have been as bad defensively as my stats show, but obviously I have to pick up my defensive game,” Gonchar said. “At the same time, I don’t think I’m playing as well offensively as the stats show. I’m not jumping into the play as much as I used to. I’m playing more conservative because I’m playing a lot of minutes [28:05 per game, a whopping 4:19 over his career average], and I have more responsibility in my own end now.”

Gonchar, who has 37 assists, 42 points and a minus-21 rating, gladly would go cold turkey on the assists for a while if it meant his rating would improve because the latter would only happen if Washington is winning games at even strength. The Caps, who have been outscored 104-72 at even strength, are just 14-26-5-2 despite their current 3-0-1-1 run.

“We’ve had a tough season as a team, and I’m a part of it,” Gonchar said. “Of course, I’m not happy about my plus-minus, but I’m not worrying too much about it, because if you try too hard you can just make things worse. Hopefully, I can just keep working and bring it down.”

Despite the numbers, coach Glen Hanlon thinks Gonchar’s game hasn’t changed. And while it’s not exactly as Gonchar goes, so go the Caps, the 29-year-old Russian’s three previous worst defensive ratings (minus-11 in 1996-1997, minus-1 in 2001-2002 and plus-1 in 1998-1999) came in the only years Washington missed the playoffs during his career.

“I don’t think Gonch is playing any differently,” Hanlon said. “His season mirrors our season. We haven’t scored enough goals for any of our guys to be a plus player [center Robert Lang leads the Caps at plus-1]. It’s hard to say that Gonch isn’t playing well defensively. It’s just that so many of his points have come on the power play.”

Indeed, Gonchar has 27 points on the power play, second in the NHL to Lang’s 28. But Lang has 28 even-strength points to Gonchar’s 15. And Gonchar, who averaged 20 goals the past five seasons, has just five, one in the 19 games since Hanlon replaced Bruce Cassidy behind the bench Dec.10.

“I don’t want Gonch to jump into the play for the sake of jumping into the play,” former goalie Hanlon said. “I don’t want a defenseman leading the rush. Follow the play in[to the offensive zone] and then if nothing happens, get out. I don’t like defensemen standing around while the puck’s behind the net and never want them behind the net.”

That philosophy in part explains the falloff in the frequency of Gonchar’s slap shots. He’s on pace for 176 shots, 51 fewer than his average the past three seasons. By comparison, Colorado’s Rob Blake, the second-leading scorer among defensemen, already has fired 157 pucks on net.

Gonchar is also focusing more on defense because longtime sidekick Ken Klee signed with Toronto as a free agent. Coupled with the retirement of Calle Johansson, Brendan Witt’s longtime partner, that left Washington with an unproven blue-line corps beyond Gonchar and Witt and prompted Cassidy to pair them in November. Hanlon has maintained that practice.

“It’s not like it was when I was playing with Calle and Gonch was playing with Kenny, but we’re getting more comfortable together,” Witt said.

However, Gonchar is minus-8 in the 12 games since the defensive-oriented Witt returned from a shoulder injury Dec.27. Witt is minus-5 during that stretch.

“You can either have one really good pair or two that aren’t as good,” said Hanlon, who had gained confidence in Joel Kwiatkowski and Jason Doig as a second tandem before they were broken up last week. “We’re a better team with Gonch and Witter playing together.”

Note — Center Dainius Zubrus practiced for the first time since breaking a foot while blocking a shot Dec.31 in Buffalo. Zubrus said that while he still had some pain when he cut, he was about 75 percent recovered and hopes to return this weekend.

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