Pens get power surge

TERRY KOSHAN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:32 AM ET

The relief on the face of Michel Therrien was easy to read yesterday.

And no wonder -- the Pittsburgh Penguins coach finally got to see his starting quarterback play this season.

Defenceman Sergei Gonchar, one of the premier point men on the power play in the NHL, made his 2008-09 debut last night against the Maple Leafs after recovering from a dislocated left shoulder. Gonchar suffered the injury in an exhibition game last fall and had surgery in early October.

"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."

If the Penguins feel like they have added a big-name free agent in the middle of February, in a sense, that's what they have done. Their 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. The math makes it pretty clear: Even with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Gonchar makes the Pens' power play go. At the least, Gonchar should give Pittsburgh's playoff hopes a shot in the arm. They were in 10th place in the East with 59 points prior to last night, tied with the Carolina Hurricanes and five back of the Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres.

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 seasons, 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 original prognosis had Gonchar returning to the Pittsburgh lineup early in March, but he credited team medical staff and a vigourous rehab regimen with getting him into uniform sooner.

"I feel good," Gonchar said. "I worked hard and the doctors were good, and that is why I am ahead of schedule. I'll have to work into it slowly."

TERRY.KOSHAN@SUNMEDIA.CA


Videos

Photos