Everything seems to be coming easy these days for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have cruised to the NHL’s best start four months after winning the franchise’s third Stanley Cup.
They’re about to see how they handle their first sign of adversity.
All-Star defenseman Sergei Gonchar(notes) could miss up to six weeks with a broken wrist, and the Penguins will look to extend their winning streak to seven in their first game without him Friday night against the visiting Florida Panthers.
Pittsburgh (8-1-0) has picked up right where it left off last season, surging to its best start after nine games since opening 8-0 with a tie in the lockout-shortened 1995 season.
The Penguins looked dominant in a 5-1 home win over St. Louis on Tuesday in which five players scored, but the victory came with a price. Gonchar collided with Blues forward David Backes(notes) in the second period and broke his wrist, leaving a huge hole on the blue line and top power-play unit.
“We are going to miss Sergei but there are going to be guys who have the opportunity to step up,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “Our team has shown in the past that they have the ability to do that.”
Martin Skoula(notes), who signed with Pittsburgh at the end of the preseason, will take Gonchar’s place after being a healthy scratch for the first nine games. Kris Letang(notes) and Alex Goligoski(notes) will split time on the top power-play unit.
“I think right now you have to feel good about the signing of Martin Skoula,” Bylsma said. “For nine games he was the odd man out and he wondered how he would get in. Now we have a guy with 700-plus NHL games we are going to insert into the lineup.”
This isn’t the first time the Penguins have had to cope without Gonchar. He missed the first 56 games of last season after undergoing left shoulder surgery, and the Penguins were 10th in the Eastern Conference before his return.
They went 18-4-4 after Gonchar came back.
The Panthers (2-5-0) dealt Pittsburgh one of those four regulation losses, but the Penguins also beat them twice during a seven-game winning streak in March behind two goals apiece from Sidney Crosby(notes) and Tyler Kennedy(notes).
The Panthers have been struggling to put any sort of offensive consistency together, scoring two goals or fewer in losing five of six. Their power-play conversion rate of 12.9 percent is among the five worst in the NHL.
In Florida’s latest game, however, its defense let it down. Scott Clemmensen(notes) was pulled less than two minutes into the first period after allowing two goals, and Buffalo scored three more times in the first 20 minutes against Tomas Vokoun(notes) in a 5-2 win.
“We needed a spark,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “It wasn’t because of the play of the goaltender. We weren’t ready to play. I tried to shock them into getting themselves back in the game. Sometimes those things work, sometimes they don’t and obviously it didn’t tonight.”
Clemmensen, though, could start Friday considering he went 2-1-0 with a 1.64 GAA in his last three starts against Pittsburgh while with the Devils last season.