Gonchar and Savard injuries affect Pens, Bruins

October, 21, 2009

And just like that, the picture changed for a pair of Eastern Conference contenders Wednesday with the news the Pittsburgh Penguins had lost their top minute man and the Boston Bruins their top offensive weapon.

But just how badly will the injuries to Pens defenseman Sergei Gonchar (broken wrist) and Bruins center Marc Savard (broken foot), both out four to six weeks, affect each club?

Let's start with the Penguins. After all, they are the Stanley Cup champions.

Yes, we all know how badly they missed Gonchar last season when the All-Star blueliner missed the first 56 games of the season. They were basically a .500 team and on the playoff bubble. He later returned and the Penguins went on a tear all the way to the Promised Land.

I'm not discounting what the 35-year-old defenseman brings to this team. He's their best defenseman, their top puck-mover, the key to their transition game, their best defensive shut-down guy and, of course, their power-play quarterback. But I believe Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski are better equipped to handle some of that load than they were when Gonchar went down in September 2008.

"Yes, I think so too," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, agreeing with the premise, told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "We'll talk about this in another two months and see if that's the case. But I agree."

Letang, 22, has blossomed into the real deal, a top-two, two-way blueliner with serious offensive skill. He really broke through during last spring's Cup run, putting up 13 points (4-9) in 23 games. He has five assists and a plus-3 rating this season. Goligoski, 24, is on a tear to start this season, fourth on the team with seven points (2-5) and tops with a plus-9 rating. Neither Letang nor Goligoski were playing at this level last season when Gonchar was out.

"I see him as a guy who can play in every situation and play against any of the other team's good players," Bylsma said. "With his skating ability, he's got some bite to the way he defends and then there's the obvious offensive ability. I think he's primed to have another big step in his career. Now he's going to have that opportunity to take that other step."

Most important of all, when Gonchar was out last season, Marc-Andre Fleury was still trying to find his game. Today, he's arguably the hottest goalie in the NHL. Nothing like the last line of defense to cover up any shortcomings.

Overall, this is a team that is playing the best hockey of the Sidney Crosby era, buoyed by the confidence it gained from winning its first championship together. Will they miss the man they call Gonch? Of course. But it not as badly as last season.

In Boston, the Bruins were already facing a so-so start (3-4-0); the defending Eastern Conference regular-season champions have frustrated the coaching staff and management with an overall attitude that seemed to signify players were a little too full of themselves from last season's success.

GM Peter Chiarelli shook up his team this past Sunday with the trade of Chuck Kobasew to Minnesota and the call-up of Brad Marchand and Vladimir Sobotka, both of whom will get a serious look.

But the team also lost top winger Milan Lucic (broken finger) for four to five weeks and now Savard, their No. 1 center.

"From the team perspective, we've been through adversity before with some major injuries," Chiarelli told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "I'm sure we'll be fine with it."

For starters, not many teams in the NHL have Boston's depth at center. Losing Savard will hurt, but having David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron as a 1-2 punch down the middle is still an amazing luxury to have in the salary-cap era.

"We've still got two bona-fide top centers so, we're still deep," Chiarelli said. "Knock on wood."

And the new kids on the block will now get a chance with everyone in the lineup moving up.

"Marchand and Sobotka certainly deserve a promotion and now they have a chance to prove themselves," Chiarelli said. "Good opportunity for them."

Chiarelli added that newly acquired forward Daniel Paille would get a chance once he's acclimatized to his new surroundings.

For the glass-half-empty readers, if you throw in the Phil Kessel deal, the Bruins are now playing without two of their top three point-getters from last season in Savard and Kessel. Lucic obviously brings another dimension with his physical play around the net and on the forecheck.

On the flip side, Bergeron seems to be a different player this season -- he's that much more removed from the career-threatening concussion he suffered two seasons ago. Plus, the Bruins also have a healthy Marco Sturm, who was basically out of the picture last season after playing only 19 games. Bergeron and Sturm are 3-4 in team scoring heading into Wednesday night's game with Nashville.

In the end, what these injuries might do for Coach Claude Julien is bring together a group of more attentive players. Last season, Julien's squad won the Jennings Trophy, allowing the fewest goals in the NHL at 2.32 per game. Right now, they are 23rd in the league at 3.29. Not good enough.

Adversity usually gives a coach a more attentive audience in the dressing room. Expect the Bruins to tighten up big time over the next few weeks. Will they score enough goals? Time will tell.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer


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