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Sergei Gonchar's focus on 'little things' aids Penguins' defense

PITTSBURGH – When we previewed the defensive groups of the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks prior to the start of the Stanley Cup Final, we gave the Sharks the edge due to a stronger top four and the absence of Trevor Daley for the Penguins.

Through four games of the Final, it’s been clear that the Penguins’ defense without Daley was underestimated, and a lot of the credit for the group’s success should go to Sergei Gonchar.

A member of the Penguins’ 2009 championship team, Gonchar retired in September after 20 NHL seasons and was hired by GM Jim Rutherford with the title of “Defensemen Development Coach,” working with the organization’s blueliners at the NHL and minor league levels.

If you talk to members of the Penguins’ defense, they’ll tell you Gonchar didn’t come in and try to overhaul their individual games. It was the little things that he did that, according to Ian Cole, that helped their “complete game.”

“He’s such a great mind of the offensive end of things,” Cole said. “He’s worked with our power play a ton. I think he can thrown on his gear and run a power play in the NHL for sure and be extremely successful at it. He’s a skillful player, even in our D-zone he tells us to continue to make skill plays, make those little plays, help us get out of the zone quicker.”

From a perch up in the press box, Gonchar has a good view of his charges and their games on a nightly basis. With a trusted iPad, he can pop down into the dressing room between periods and go over details that can be noticed from a high vantage point as opposed from watching the game from ice level.

It’s a different game watching it from up high and some players need to be reminded that there are moments when they have more time than they think when controlling the puck. 

“He’s just coming in between periods or after games and it’s about stick position, it’s about body position, it’s about those little things like gap control that make a big difference,” said Brian Dumolin, “and when you get into those situations then you kind of think about it and you [don’t try to] fix a mistake but put yourself in a different position.”

Gonchar’s shared wisdom has played a part in the Penguins building up a 3-1 series lead and giving themselves a chance to finally win the Cup at home Thursday night in Game 5. Through four games, Pittsburgh has blocked 93 shots, which has helped stifle a Sharks offense that averaged 27.7 shots and 3.58 goals per game through the first three rounds to 24.5 shots and 2.5 goals per game in the Final.

Do enough of those little things right and the results will come.

Mike Sullivan inherited Gonchar on his coaching staff when he replaced Mike Johnston in December. It didn’t take the Penguins head coach long to see just how quickly the insight the long-time blueliner brought was being received.

“He’s got a great relationship with our defense core. He offers them a lot of subtle insights into how to be a more effective player,” said Sullivan. “He’s certainly a guy that they have a tremendous amount of respect for because of what he’s accomplished in the game. The fact that he’s so close to having played with a lot of these guys they can certainly relate to him because it hasn’t been too long since he hasn’t been in the heat of the battle himself.

“Top to bottom, from Kris Letang on down, I think Sergei’s been valuable for that group.”

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Sean Leahy is the associate editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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