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GONCHAR HAPPY TO BE A PENGUIN

Thursday, 08.04.2005 / 12:00 AM / Pittsburgh Penguins
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GONCHAR HAPPY TO BE A PENGUIN

Related Press Release: PENGUINS SIGN FREE AGENT DEFENSEMAN SERGEI GONCHAR

One word used to come to Sergei Gonchar’s mind when he thought about the Pittsburgh Penguins – frustration.

And that’s understandable. As a member of the Washington Capitals, Gonchar and his teammates were knocked out of the Stanley Cup playoffs four times in seven years.

Frustration turned into jubilation Aug. 3 as Gonchar signed a multi-year contract to bolster the Penguins’ defensive corps. The 31-year-old Russian is excited to join the team and skate alongside Mario Lemieux and top draft pick Sidney Crosby, among others.

“It’s a great thing. As a kid you dream about playing on the same team with Mario Lemieux,” he said. “It’s an exciting situation for me. I am thrilled about it. The things people are saying about Crosby are very good so I am very fortunate to play with those two guys. Imagine how excited I am to play with Mario Lemieux, the legend of hockey, and Crosby, who will become one. I am looking forward to it.”

Of course, Gonchar will sleep better, too, without images of guys in Penguins jerseys chasing him out of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals as they did four times in his 10-year career – in 1995, 1996, 2000 and 2001.

“I have some memories about those series and not a lot of them are pleasant,” he said with a laugh. “A couple of times, we were leading in the series and still lost. That’s the way it is.”

In 1995, Gonchar’s rookie season, the Penguins overcame a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Capitals in three-straight games. Washington owned a 2-0 lead in the 1996 series, but Pittsburgh rallied for four-straight triumphs. The Penguins ousted the Capitals 4-1 in 2000 and rallied from a 2-2 series tie in 2001 to post a 4-2 victory.

“Yes, I am glad to be on the other side now,” Gonchar said. “It’s tough to say what happened. It seems to me like the Penguins always had more talent and they beat us. Washington did everything it possibly could to beat them, but it didn’t work out that way.”

Gonchar won’t have to worry about that anymore. His primary focus is getting the Penguins back to the playoffs.

“It seems the organization has a goal to build a contender which will compete for the Cup,” he said. “Coming into this year, the management has always been known for building good contenders and it seems like it’s the case again. We will have a good team when this year starts.”

Gonchar, a 6-2, 215-pound offensive defenseman and power play catalyst, has scored more goals (74) and racked up more points (241) than any NHL defenseman over the past four seasons. He looks to add to those numbers in Pittsburgh.

“With the new rules coming in, offense is going to be the thing everyone will concentrate on. The game will be more open and there is a chance to score more goals,” he said. “Pittsburgh has been known for that kind of style and I guess it will work to their advantage with the new rules. I have always liked they way they played. I have the feeling I’m not going to have to change to play in their system. We didn’t discuss details of how I am going to play, but I have played against them for so many years, I know what to expect and what it’s going to look like.”

The Penguins’ roster is loaded with a plethora of young talent and highly skilled veterans, which has Gonchar’s mouth watering to step onto the Mellon Arena ice.

“They have so much talent,” he said. “They have a chance to be good not just for a year or two, but for many. They have a bright future ahead of them. They have been known as an organization to develop young players and treat them very well and they become very good hockey players.”

Last season, Gonchar got the chance to play alongside one of the Penguins’ young prospects in Evgeni Malkin, the second-overall pick of the 2004 NHL draft. Gonchar and Malkin, who share the same agent in J.P. Barry, were teammates for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the Russian Hockey League.

“Evgeni is a nice kid. In my opinion, he has a great future ahead of him. He has all the skills in the world,” Gonchar said. “He does very well back home. My opinion is that he’s ready to play here. It will be a matter if we will be able to get him with all uncertainty between NHL and the (International Ice Hockey Federation). Evgeni is ready. He has all the potential.”

Gonchar, who has recorded 425 points and 529 penalty minutes in 669 NHL games with Washington and Boston, can’t be more pleased that he is a member of the Penguins.

“I played in Russia last year, but I was missing the NHL. Nothing against the Russian league, but obviously it’s not the same league there,” he said. “You want to spend all the years you can in the NHL, so I am looking forward to getting back on the ice and happy to do so with Pittsburgh.”

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