- The Washington Times - Friday, May 1, 2009

PITTSBURGH | For a guy only recently showered with local love — remember, Pittsburgh Penguins fans tried to boo him out of town during his first months with the club in 2005 — defenseman Sergei Gonchar possesses a sharp sense of humor and an on-the-spot delivery.

His telling in early March of a story about his oldest daughter’s pet turtle, which escaped last year from the Gonchar family backyard by burrowing out of a perfectly landscaped and enclosed pond area, had teammates hanging on every word.

“I’ve never heard of a turtle doing such a thing,” Gonchar said. “I guess he didn’t like living with me. … He left after two months. ‘Geno’ stuck around for two years.”

“Geno,” of course, is Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, who lived in Gonchar’s house before purchasing his own pad this season. It could be argued that Gonchar’s greatest payoff on the Penguins’ $25 million investment in him during the summer of 2005 has been helping Malkin, a fellow Russian, grow as a player and leader.

Malkin rejected that argument Thursday after the Penguins’ first practice in preparation for their Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series against the Washington Capitals, which opens Saturday at Verizon Center.

“He’s helped the whole team, not just me,” Malkin said, specifically identifying Gonchar’s on-ice instruction sessions with second-year defenseman Kris Letang. Just such a session was held Thursday.

“He spent seven minutes talking to [Letang],” coach Dan Bylsma said. “He brings that to our team. He has experience. He has knowledge. He can make other people feel comfortable.

“In some aspects, he’s our secondary coach out there.”

One the Penguins hope to keep around. All indications are they will try to extend Gonchar’s contract, which expires after next season, at first opportunity July 1.

In the past four seasons, Gonchar has created a new life for himself in Pittsburgh after an up-and-down start to his NHL career over parts of 10 campaigns with the Capitals. He scored at least 15 goals in six of those seasons and more than 20 twice, but still — for reasons Gonchar said he neither understands completely nor does he wish to discuss — Caps fans heckle him at Verizon Center each time the puck touches his stick.

Then again, fans were hard on him during most of his first season with the Penguins, when Gonchar admitted he struggled in then-coach Eddie Olczyk’s system. Two coaches later, Penguins players believe their fans owe Gonchar gratitude for helping them reach the playoffs.

The Penguins went 17-4-4 with Gonchar in the lineup after he returned Feb. 14 from left shoulder surgery that cost him 56 regular-season games. Gonchar scored six goals and recorded 19 points in that span, including 15 points in his first 16 contests.

“To be honest, I think everyone’s expectations of him weren’t very high when he was coming off that surgery,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “That’s a long time to be off, but he stepped right back. … It didn’t take him long.”

Players representing the same organization that provided Gonchar his NHL opportunity are aware he could play a significant role in helping the Penguins again end a hockey season in the District — as they did four times when he played for the Capitals.

“[Gonchar] changes the complexion of their team completely,” Caps wing Brooks Laich said. “He is all over the ice, and you always have to watch him. … He is a lot like Mike Green — just a big ‘X’ factor on the back line.”

Green, who paced NHL defensemen with 31 goals this season, is a finalist for the Norris Trophy, awarded annually to the league’s best blueliner. Gonchar has won neither that award nor the Stanley Cup — so his 191 goals, 634 points and a vastly improved defensive performance the past three seasons (a combined plus-27) have left an appreciation void among nonplayers in the hockey world.

“He can kind of fly under the radar because he’s so quiet and doesn’t go looking for attention, but he’s appreciated by every player in this room. I could sense that right away,” said Penguins right wing Bill Guerin, traded from the New York Islanders on March 4. “He’s always in control of himself, on the ice and in the locker room. He’s the same all time, and a lot of guys respect that. If you find yourself in a pressure situation, you can just look down the bench at ‘Gonch’ or look at him in his locker spot, and he’s just kind of rolling with it.”

Gonchar said he will roll with the odd, mating call-like noises Caps fans will shower him with because he’ll roll with anything — almost. The line he drew Thursday was at Malkin’s good-natured ribbing of Gonchar’s card-playing ability.

“We play, and he never wins,” Malkin said. “He gets mad. Ask him.”

“It’s the toughest thing for me right now,” Gonchar said of losing to his protege. “We’re going to work on it all summer so I don’t [lose] all next year.”

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