PITTSBURGH — Unlike others returning to play their first game in a rink they called home for a significant chunk of their career, Sergei Gonchar isn’t able to joke that he hopes he goes to the right dressing room for the morning skate.
In this case, he doesn’t know where either of them are.
But Gonchar is sure to have a few laughs seeing his old friends with the Penguins before facing them Monday night in the fifth-ever game at the Consol Energy Center. Fourteen of them are still around from the 2008-09 Stanley Cup championship season that stands as the highlight of Gonchar’s career.
“Obviously, it’s going to be something special,” the Senators defenceman said of his return to Pittsburgh — a city he reluctantly left last summer when the Penguins fell short of his contract demands — as he and his new mates look for their first road win of the season. “I’ve been with those guys for five years, won a Cup with them, so playing against them is going to be kind of tough and weird at the same time.
“When you play with them, you become good friends. It’s going to be one of those games when you’re confused a little bit at the beginning, and then, when the game starts, you get into it, adjust and everything is fine.”
Gonchar, who should finish his career regarded as one of the best offensive defencemen ever, has not yet shown what he can do in that part of the game as a Senator. Through five games, he has just one assist. He also has only six shots on goal — a sin given how hard he can blast a puck.
“That happens sometimes when you come to a team, you don’t want to come across as a selfish player,” said coach Cory Clouston. “He’s got a very good shot and sometimes we need him to use it more, which will open up other areas and other guys. If you’re just always passing, it’s fairly easy to focus on other guys.”
Clouston has leaned on Gonchar hard thus far. Through Saturday’s games, the 36-year old Russian had averaged 27:12 of ice time a night, making him the fourth-most worked player in the league.
“He’s done a lot of good things. He’s been our best defenceman back there,” said Clouston. “We need to give him more support. We can’t have him up in the 27, 28 minutes (range) all the time. Other guys have to step up and try to absorb a few of those minutes. He’ll be much better if we can get a little more consistency from our other guys.”
Chris Phillips says his new blue-line partner has been a plus to the team off the ice as well.
“He’s a pretty quiet guy, but as we’re moving on here, he’s a quiet guy that speaks quite a bit,” said Phillips. “He lets his opinions be heard. He goes about it in a quiet manner, but has a lot to say.”
Gonchar says his original priority was to grasp the Senators’ defensive system. Of that, he believes he has succeeded. His goal now is get his offence going, and help a power play — currently ranked dead last in the league — of which he was hired to quarterback.
“I’m getting better. I think I’m on the same page with the guys defensively,” he said. “The biggest thing for me now is to help create a little more offence. By jumping into those holes. It’s the thing I’m going to probably focus on, from now on, a little bit more. And the power play, right now, is not working. And I’m a part of it. I’m going to try to do things differently and hopefully those adjustments will be better.”
Meanwhile, you have to know that Gonchar would like nothing better than to score his first goal as a Senator against the Penguins. If it turns out to be the winner, all the better.
“You definitely want to have a good game against them,” he said, while admitting to no resentment over not being re-signed by Penguins GM Ray Shero. “They already made their decision. Whatever happened, happened. Everything happens for a reason. I’m in Ottawa now. I play for the Senators and my focus is Ottawa.”