Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Pens' Gonchar out four-to-six weeks


Just off the golf course (enjoying the likely last pleasant day here) and still on the road, but I'll chime in here. Shortly after noon today, Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma announced defenseman Sergei Gonchar will miss the next month at least with a broken bone in his wrist. So for the second time in two seasons, the Penguins have to cope without their best defenseman.

Gonchar is one of the top offensive blue liners, is underrated defensively, often plays the full two minutes on the power play and is a top penalty killer. To say Gonchar, not Sidney Crosby nor Evgeni Malkin, is Pittsburgh's MVP would not be an outlandish statement.

This kind of thing seems to be the only way to derail the Penguins' hot start. They are 8-1 and tied a record for points by a defending champion at this point of the season.

The difference this year is so many players are producing. From Crosby and Malkin, to Tyler Kennedy and Mike Rupp, to Alex Goligoski and all the way down to sixth defenseman Jay McKee.

Goligoski will be one of the players counted on to replace Gonchar. He's also been one of the most impressive Penguins. He played 45 games last season while Gonchar was out and fared nicely. That was his first NHL action. This year, he doesn't look out of place one bit. His poise near his own net has been solid and his defensive work overall has been better than expected. He has grown by leaps and bounds already.

We'll see how he does now that Gonchar is not around and he'll be asked to take on a bigger role. Goligoski had been playing with McKee and it remains to be seen what the pairings will look like for Friday's game.

Kris Letang is the other defenseman who will need to step up. No problems are expected there. Letang has been excellent in recent seasons. His offense is off to a slightly slow start, with no goals, but he does have five assists.

The Penguins will be in good hands, even if Wild fans predict doom and gloom now that the Martin Skoula era will begin. He'll be with either Mark Eaton or McKee most likely (the guess here is Letang will play with Brooks Orpik, Skoula and Eaton and Goligoski-McKee. Won't be surprised to see Skoula-McKee and Goligoski-Eaton though.) Either way, Skoula will play with a strong defensive partner capable of covering up mistakes. Barring that, Marc-Andre Fleury is playing very well.

Still, the loss of Gonchar is a big blow. It won't be as bad as last season, when Letang was younger and less mature and there was no Goligoski. The Penguins also had to rely more on the Magic Man, Ryan Whitney, but he was hurt until December. Pittsburgh isn't likely to maintain that .889 winning percentage without Gonchar, but they shouldn't go into the tank either.

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