Each teammate that defenseman Sergei Gonchar spoke to Tuesday morning said the same thing. It seemed everyone on the Washington Capitals knew the talented but enigmatic 25-year-old was about to snap out of a pronounced scoring slump. Each time Gonchar ripped a shot at the morning skate he elicited a more passionate response.
"He was shooting the puck really hard at the skate and everything was going in," winger Steve Konowalchuk said. "I just went up to him and said, 'Tonight's the night the way you're shooting the puck.' We had a feeling he was going to get one."
Tuesday night, when Adam Oates fed Gonchar at the point about 11 minutes into the first period against the New York Islanders, Konowalchuk began to chatter on the bench.
"As soon as Oates passed it I said, 'There you go Sergei, that's going in,' " Konowalchuk said. "And then it went in."
Gonchar immediately burst into a smile when the red light flickered behind Islanders rookie goalie Roberto Luongo. He had scored his first goal of the season, after 20 games and 52 shots. By the time Gonchar skated over to the bench, he was doubled over in laughter.
"My teammates always support me," Gonchar said. "Almost every one of them said they felt it was going to be the night. They gave me good support. When I get to the bench everyone said, 'I told you, I told you.' "
The slow start is nothing new for Gonchar. Last season, he did not score his first goal until Dec. 12, in the team's 27th game and Gonchar's 14th. This season his first goal came on Dec. 7, in the team's 26th game and Gonchar's 21st. In 1997-98, Gonchar scored in his first game then went 22 games without scoring again. Believe it or not, he's actually ahead of schedule.
The challenge for him now is to continue to elevate his play at both ends of the ice and finish as strongly as he has in the past. Last season, Gonchar looked like a star by season's end, finishing with 21 goals (13 on the power play) in his final 40 games, while playing strong in his own zone.
"Hopefully it will take off some of the pressure," Capitals Coach Ron Wilson said. "Defense is not just about scoring, it's about your whole game. But when your focus becomes primarily just to score, you're not as effective. So maybe now that the puck has gone in he can be effective at both ends of the ice."
Gonchar is still working his way back into the coaches' good graces. He slipped from the team's top defenseman at the start of the season to the last unit, playing fewer minutes with rookie partner Alexei Tezikov. He has had trouble making smart decisions with the puck and often turned it over. He struggled with making crisp breakout passes on the power play.
However, his strong skating and booming shot kept him in the lineup even at his nadir, and it's those gifts that make him integral to the team's future. If he plays like a top-notch defenseman, the Capitals (10-11-5) are an immeasurably better and deeper team. That fact is lost on no one. James Black netted the game winner Tuesday, but when he called his parents, who were watching on satellite in Canada after the game, all they wanted to talk about was Gonchar.
"The first thing they said was, 'Did you see Sergei score a goal?' " Black said. "They didn't really say anything about my goal but I'm very happy he got it. I told him to just keep pounding the puck, no matter what. As the game went on he was more confident carrying the puck and playing better defensively and doing all the little things."
Getting the first goal could be the first step to salvaging a season and helping the Capitals make a strong push for the playoffs.
"It takes some pressure off my shoulders," Gonchar said. "And it's good for the team because we need goals from everybody with [leading scorer Peter] Bondra out. I hope I'm going to start scoring again. It's a natural thing when you get one to keep going and going and get more confidence. I hope it's going to work out for me this year, and I hope to have a season like last year. I never quit on myself and I'm going out there to do my best."
Capitals Notes: Gonchar and center Andrei Nikolishin did not practice yesterday for precautionary reason, Wilson said, but both will play tonight.