- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2004

Sergei Gonchar was welcomed to the locker room yesterday by a sea of cameras, tape recorders and notebooks.

No one was asking about Gonchar’s expected return to the Washington lineup tonight against Florida after missing two games with what the Capitals termed the flu. Rather, the rare media horde at Piney Orchard was on hand because of the anticipated departure of the league’s top-scoring defenseman before next Tuesday’s NHL trade deadline.

As of last night, Caps general manager George McPhee was still fielding offers from contenders like Toronto, New Jersey, Dallas, Boston, Vancouver, Nashville and Colorado for Gonchar and/or fellow defenseman Brendan Witt and goalie Olie Kolzig, but all three were set to play tonight at MCI Center. Gonchar said he had recovered from the stomach bug as well as the aftereffects of a big hit he took during Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to Carolina.

“I’m feeling good, and I’m ready to play,” said Gonchar, who prefers to be traded to Toronto, where he has trained the past two summers and where he would rejoin longtime blue-line partner Ken Klee.

“A month ago, I was expecting [a trade] would be done soon, but I guess George is still looking for the best deal for this team. I expect it to happen anytime now. A friend of mine called me from Russia and said they announced on Russian TV that I’ve already been traded. There are a lot of weird things going on [like the Maple Leafs briefly posting Gonchar’s biography on their Web site Friday]. But as soon as I step on the ice, I’m not thinking about it because I have obligations to my team.”

Gonchar, like Kolzig and Witt, never has played for another organization. But the 29-year-old Russian said the previous salary-dumping trades of captain Steve Konowalchuk, five-time NHL scoring champion Jaromir Jagr, Caps all-time scoring leader Peter Bondra and NHL scoring leader Robert Lang have made his likely departure easier to take.

“We joke around like, ‘Oh you’re still here?’” Gonchar said. “Kono used to sit next to me. We would have a little chat every morning. And then the next day, he’s not here. When you’ve been somewhere for 10 years, you have a lot of friends on and off the ice, and you’re going to miss them.”

The Caps’ power play certainly missed Gonchar’s slap shots and puck movement from the point over the weekend. The Caps failed to convert on five opportunities, leaving Washington’s once-formidable power play 4-for-30 in the nine games Gonchar has missed this season. Trading Lang to Detroit on Friday made it doubly tough.

“Our system has been structured around Robert from day one,” Caps coach Glen Hanlon said. “You take away Gonchy and Robert, and you can only expect so much. Having Gonchy back will be huge.”

Indeed, Gonchar has more power-play points (31) than any teammate has total points. But Gonchar said the power play can work without Jagr, Bondra and Lang if he and forwards like Alexander Semin, Jeff Halpern, Dainius Zubrus, Anson Carter and Mike Grier shoot more often.

“We’re not shooting the puck enough,” Gonchar said. “We’re moving around and battling on the boards, but you have to shoot to score.”

But Hanlon, who has focused on fixing Washington’s defensive woes since replacing Bruce Cassidy on Dec.10, maintained that those battles for the puck are paramount.

“Most of the nights we’ve had success on the power play it’s not something that we’ve drawn on the board,” Hanlon said. “It’s just battling for pucks and winning those battles. Any forward group can get it done if you stick with what you start out to do.”

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