The Pittsburgh Penguins feel like they’ve made a major free-agent signing in the middle of February.
Defenceman Sergei Gonchar will play in his first game of the 2008-09 season tonight at the Air Canada Centre, facing the Maple Leafs after recovering from a separated left shoulder. Gonchar, one of the premier point-men on the power play in the National Hockey League, was injured Sept. 20 in a pre-season game against Tampa Bay and had surgery on Oct. 2.
“I feel good,” Gonchar said. “The first game will be tough for me. I worked hard, and the doctors were good, and that is why I am ahead of schedule.”
The Penguins’ power-play success last season was 20.4%, good for fourth in the NHL. With Gonchar recuperating, it has slipped to 24th, with goals coming 16.3% of the time. Of his 12 goals in 2007-08, Gonchar had eight with a man advantage. Penguins defencemen have scored seven power-play goals this season.
Gonchar’s patience in the face of penalty killers partly is what makes him so effective. With Gonchar manning the right side the previous three years, the Penguins power play never was lower than sixth.
“I coached Gonch for five years in Washington and there is only a handful of guys in the league who have that kind of ability,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. “Once he gets some games under his belt, it will make that team’s power play very dangerous.
“The best thing for us is to stay out of the box. Don’t put yourself in that peril.”
The relief that Gonchar will be back was easy to read on the face of Penguins coach Michel Therrien.
“It’s great,” Therrien said. “He’s a presence out there and in our dressing room. But we have to be cautious. He has had no training camp and has had no exhibition games. We’re going to have to manage his ice time. We’re excited to have him back.”
Penguins star Sidney Crosby has the flu but is expected to play. He did not speak to reporters after the morning skate.
The Leafs recalled Boyd Devereaux from the Marlies but it didn’t sound like he would be playing against the Penguins.
“Probably not,” Wilson said when asked if Devereaux, who has spent the season in the minors and 16 points in 45 games, would be in the lineup tonight.
Also, the Penguins were preparing to have forward Ruslan Fedotenko in uniform. Fedotenko has been out since breaking his hand in a fight with Atlanta’s Colby Armstrong on Jan. 6.
The Leafs' Vesa Toskala and the Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury are expected to get the respective starts in goal.