PITTSBURGH (AP) – Sergei Gonchar’s calming presence helps the Pittsburgh Penguins on the blue line, in the dressing room, and even at the interview podium, where the spotlight of the Stanley Cup finals is often brightest.

Just ask fellow Russian teammate Evgeni Malkin, who turned to Gonchar when the English word he searched for couldn’t be found in his growing vocabulary. A simple whisper from the ever-present defenseman gave Malkin the missing word “space.” The young, dynamic forward then completed his answer.

“He’s a really quiet guy. Keeps to himself, pretty private person,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said of Gonchar during Wednesday’s off day. “But when he is in the lineup, he just seems like he has a really calming influence on everybody.”

That was missing from the Penguins for a large chunk of this season.

Gonchar, a fixture on the point for Penguins power plays, scored the winning goal during a third-period advantage and added a power-play assist as Pittsburgh got back into the finals with a 4-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday night.

Pittsburgh is 3-of-6 on the power play in this series, including 2-of-3 in Game 3.

“We’ve got to take Gonchar away a little bit more,” Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood said. “When you give him time to drag (the puck), he’s great at picking corners and putting the puck where he wants, but also great at dishing it off to the side.”

The Penguins are still down 2-1, but the pressure is still squarely on them. If they falter Thursday in Game 4 at the Igloo, they will face elimination Saturday in Detroit. Pittsburgh fell into a hole with a pair of 3-1 losses in Hockeytown.

Gonchar’s potentially serious knee injury, courtesy of a questionable hit in Game 4 of the second round by Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, could have derailed Pittsburgh’s second consecutive finals appearance.

Gonchar was injured in a knee-to-knee collision. He missed the next two games before making a surprising return in a reduced role for the Game 7 clincher.

“I really didn’t know what was going to happen,” Gonchar said Wednesday. “The injury was there, and you never know how your body’s going to respond to it. We took the approach when we look at it day-to-day, and I was fortunate enough that my body reacted well to the injury.”

It isn’t clear how healthy Gonchar is now, but he feels good enough to be in the lineup with the championship on the line. The Penguins are 6-2 since Gonchar returned.

“The regular season, I think we were about a .500 team without him,” Orpik said. “A lot of the defensemen were pushed into roles that they weren’t really all that comfortable with when he was out.”

Gonchar made his presence felt right away in Game 7 against Washington when he assisted on the Penguins’ opening goal. Gonchar is the league’s highest-scoring defenseman with 14 playoff points, and his nine power-play assists are tops overall in the NHL this postseason.

Pittsburgh tread water for the first 56 games of the season when Gonchar was sidelined by a shoulder injury sustained in the preseason. The Penguins’ playoff surge began after his return when they finished on an 18-4-4 run.

“When your team is losing, it’s probably one of the worst feelings I’ve had in my life as a hockey player, because that was the first injury in my life when I was out for such a long time,” Gonchar said. “I didn’t know what’s going to happen. I knew we had a good team, good group of guys, but unfortunately, things weren’t going our way, and I didn’t know where we were going to end up.”

“When I came back, I made a few changes. I recognized there is a good chance the way we’ve been playing. At that time we didn’t know if we were going to make the playoffs. We needed change, and those changes changed our club. You can see it on the ice. The way we started playing, the way we were approaching the game, I knew we had a good chance to make the playoffs.”

With Gonchar in the lineup, Pittsburgh’s power-play clicked at a rate of 20 percent during the regular season. It converted just 16.1 percent of chances when he was out.

“You look at our season here, at our power play stats during the season, and you look when Sergei came back from his injury, that’s when our power play and our confidence (grew),” forward Max Talbot said. “It was a turning point of the season, a big turning point because he’s such a strain out there on the point.

“When he got hurt against Washington it was scary, but when he came back it was a huge boost because we know how important he is for our team. Not only our power play, but the whole team.”


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