PITTSBURGH -- In their pivotal game of their playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins won the battle of wounded knee.
You probably know somebody like Sergei Gonchar, at least in fiction. He is the Black Night in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where everything is only a flesh wound. He is one of those cowboys in the Westerns who take a slug of whiskey while some sawbones is yanking a bullet out of his leg. He is playing with a right knee that is so badly damaged that the moment the Stanley Cup final concludes, some surgeon will be grabbing a scalpel or, if Gonchar is as tough as he appears, whetting a Bowie knife.
Gonchar was the victim of a knee-on-knee drive-by courtesy of Alexander Ovechkin in Game 4 of the Washington Capitals series, one that presumably was going to knock him out of the playoffs. This was the second of his supposed season-ending injuries -- he dislocated his left shoulder during the exhibition season -- but Gonchar, who missed about three-quarters of the regular season, was back on the ice for Game 7 of the second-round series against the Capitals.
"I'm getting there," Gonchar said is his usual whisper when asked post-game about his knee. "I still do my treatments and I obviously take care of it, and it's better and better with every day."
At last it's better and better in Pittsburgh after the 4-2 win in Game 3 (RECAP | BOX), which averted a hole deep enough for a full-out China syndrome. The victory came courtesy of Gonchar's screened power-play slapper midway through the third period, a red badge of courage against the Detroit Red Wings.
Sidney Crosby might be the Penguins leader -- more on his faceoff prowess in Game 3 in a minute -- but the veteran Gonchar is at the emotional center of the team. Maxime Talbot, who would score the Penguins first goal and their last on an empty netter, said that before the match he and Crosby gazed across from their stalls at the preternaturally calm Gonchar and marveled. "You look at him and he's just so relaxed, so poised," Talbot said. You look in his eyes and you know he's ready. He's been through a lot this year. But as soon as he came back, I think it was a turning point of the season. The power play started going. He kinda gives you the confidence that, OK, I'm relaxed."
"It's been a rollercoaster season for him," defenseman Brooks Orpik said of his partner. "He's battled so hard to get back from that injury in training camp, and it was kinda a tough situation in the Washington series. We thought that when it happened, he was done for the season."
If he didn't score his first goal post-wounded knee at 10:29 of the third, the Penguins would have been done, more or less, for the season.
But rewind the clock by 83 seconds. At the faceoff following an interference penalty on Detroit defenseman Jonathan Ericsson -- a stupefying call considering referees Dennis LaRue and Paul Devorski generally had been more lenient than Hippie parents in the 1970s -- Crosby won the faceoff from his arch-nemesis, sublime Detroit center Henrik Zetterberg. The humble faceoff, like boat shoes or slapstick comedy, is grossly underrated. A faceoff is not merely a restart but a struggle for control, especially inside the blue lines and even more on the power play. If Crosby loses that draw, the Red Wings have a chance to clear the puck and basically kill a sixth of the penalty. On a first-period power play, Crosby had won three faceoffs in a 71-second span -- two against Zetterberg, the last one against Valtteri Filppula -- before Kris Letang scored. The puck never left the zone that time, nor would it in the third period after Crosby beat Zetterberg.
Crosby, who would win 12 of 19 faceoffs, was extracting a degree of revenge for Game 1, when he went 6-for-20 and 5-of-16 against Zetterberg, including just one of eight on draws in the offensive zone. He later would suggest that simply playing in Pittsburgh explained the disparity -- the home-team center puts his stick in second -- but the calculating Crosby's ability to adapt to Zetterberg's favorite moves was at least as responsible. He was being way too modest.
"Those (faceoff wins) are huge, especially against those guys," Orpik said. "I know on the second power play you could tell we just backed them off because they were so tired. I don't know the guys" -- for the record, they were Zetterberg, Dan Cleary, Nicklas Lidstrom and Brad Stuart -- "but had them pinned in there. Sid and (Evgeni Malkin) did a great job of slowing it down and giving us great looks and Gonch had a great shot with a great screen. (Detroit goalie Chris) Osgood's been seeing it pretty good all series. Osgood didn't see that one at all."
"We couldn't get the puck out," Zetterberg said "We ended up being in there almost 90 seconds, you get tired."
Because of sheer fatigue, the Red Wings penalty killers didn't challenge the points, which allowed Gonchar to tee up his winning shot. (Malkin had his third assist of the game on the play, Crosby his first point of the series.) After allowing two goals on three chances, Detroit had killed just 45 of 63 power plays in the playoffs. A 71.4 percentage is lousy for an NBA free throw shooter. For a theoretically elite NHL penalty-killing unit, it is a disaster.
"On the second power play goal, to me they worked real hard," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "I thought we worked real hard. We didn't get our stick on it good enough to get it 200 feet (down the ice). That's the way it goes."
Indeed. Sometimes a shrug is the proper response. This time it was Detroit's Mikael Samuelsson hitting a goal post, not those Penguins ironworkers from Game 2 who rung three posts, and Pittsburgh got away with having six skaters on the ice for about 20 seconds in the first period, a gaffe that neither ref nor none of the linesman caught. Said Talbot, "I think we got a good break on that, six guys on the ice. With six guys we cycled the puck a little bit. It was great. Yeah, we got some breaks. It was huge."
No bigger than Gonchar's will and goal.