Wednesday, March 31, 2004

How fortunate can you get? Sergei Gonchar has gone from one of the NHL’s worst teams to one with a legitimate chance of winning the Stanley Cup.

The Russian native and former core member of the Washington Capitals is adjusting to his new life as a member of the Boston Bruins. The three-time All-Star was in his 10th season in Washington when he was dealt as part of the Caps’ fire sale shortly before the trading deadline. He will face his former team for the first time tonight when the Caps play the Bruins at FleetCenter.

“I grew up in the organization, and now I am going to be playing against it,” said Gonchar, who was drafted by Washington in 1992. “It is going to be weird shooting on Olie [Kolzig], but I look forward to it.”

Gonchar, who turns 30 on April13, is the NHL’s highest-scoring defenseman with 58 points (11 goals, 47 assists) and has become a regular on the Bruins’ power-play and penalty-killing units. Boston has the second-most points (101) in the Eastern Conference and trails Tampa Bay by three.

Meanwhile, the Caps have the league’s second-worst record (24-45-9-2) and will end their miserable season Sunday.

“I would like to see him and [former Cap now Bruin Michael Nylander] do well in the playoffs,” said Washington defenseman Brendan Witt, who came to the organization a year after Gonchar in 1993. “Gonch is a good friend of mine. It’s tough to see him in a Bruins jersey. That’s the business. He didn’t want to stay here. Obviously with his contract situation, management didn’t want to keep him. It’s a little tough, but it’s a business.”

Gonchar said it was difficult to leave Washington, but he wanted to be traded to a contender rather than stay and be part of a rebuilding process. He was dealt March 3 for prospect Shaone Morrisonn and the Bruins’ first- and second-round picks in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

“I knew [the Bruins] were going to be in the playoffs,” said Gonchar, who has four goals and five assists with his new team. “Since ‘98, I have been out of the first round one time. Now we have a chance to go to the finals.”

Gonchar keeps in touch with many Caps and would have taken some out to dinner if they had arrived last night instead of this morning. He plans to keep his home in Montgomery County because his contract is up after this season and the league’s future is uncertain because of a possible owners’ lockout.

Meanwhile, the Caps are used to seeing former teammates in other uniforms with Washington stalwarts like Steve Konowalchuk (Colorado), Jaromir Jagr (New York Rangers) and Peter Bondra (Ottawa) also dealt in cost-cutting moves. Nylander also was shipped to Boston shortly before the trading deadline.

Witt and Gonchar will exchange pleasantries before tonight’s contest, but after that the Caps will try to be the spoiler against the Bruins.

“Gonch is pretty dangerous,” Witt said. “If I get a chance to [hit] him, I will. It’s my job. He knows that. He is going to try to score on Olie a few times.”

Notes — The Caps’ Trent Whitfield will miss tonight’s game with an upper body injury suffered against Pittsburgh. Whitfield had career highs with three points and two goals in Tuesday’s win over the Penguins. Brian Willsie will take his place. … Caps coach Glen Hanlon said Kolzig will start in goal, but rookie Matt Yeats, who recorded his first career win by stopping 27 shots against the Penguins, will play again before the season ends.

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