New point of view awaits Penguins assistant coach Sergei Gonchar
With his heralded eye for the game and a reputation for rehabilitating struggling defensemen, the Pittsburgh Penguins have a weapon in assistant coach Sergei Gonchar.
They plan to deploy that weapon a little bit differently this season.
Gonchar, who spent games communicating remotely with Mike Sullivan, Mark Recchi and Jacques Martin from the press box last season, was behind the bench for all six of the team’s games in the preseason.
Sullivan said he plans to use Gonchar at ice level more once the regular season starts, perhaps stationing him upstairs for the first two periods of a game and behind the bench for the third period.
Sullivan said the move will be good for Gonchar’s development as a coach, but even better for the team’s defensemen, with whom the 44-year-old Russian has a good relationship.
“When he’s behind the bench, it gives him an opportunity to share his insights periodically with some of the defensemen when they come off the ice,” Sullivan said. “That gives Jacques more of an opportunity to watch the game and look for the matchups he’s going to look for. What you’ll probably see moving forward is a little bit of both.”
Defenseman Brian Dumoulin did not play in the third period of Friday night’s preseason finale, a 7-6 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Sullivan he did not have an immediate update on the condition of Dumoulin, who would be evaluated for an upper-body injury once the team returned to Pittsburgh.
Daniel Sprong missed the game with a lower-body injury.
Olli Maatta was in the lineup the team announced Thursday afternoon, but once Zach Trotman cleared waivers on Friday afternoon, the Penguins subbed him in for Maatta. Sullivan said he thought Trotman had a good camp and he wanted to give him another look.
The game was a chance for goalies Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith to make their final pitch to win the back-up goalie job behind Matt Murray.
Conditions were hardly ideal for either goaltender to thrive.
The Penguins weren’t exactly in midseason form when it came to defensive responsibility. Before the game was six minutes old, Artemi Panarin scored twice on jailbreak odd-man rushes.
The Blue Jackets were of a similar mindset. Derick Brassard had two goals and an assist for the Penguins. Sidney Crosby, Bryan Rust, Patric Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin also scored.
Jarry was in net for both Panarin goals as well as three others. He stopped 15-of-20 shots. DeSmith fared better in relief. He stopped 15-of-17 shots, allowing Oliver Bjorkstrand’s game winner with less than four minutes left.
DeSmith said he could use the game as a learning experience.
“There’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of reads that need to be made,” DeSmith said. “The more reads you make, the better position you put yourself in to stop the puck. I thought I did that tonight. The glove side just needs some work.”
Jarry had slightly better preseason stats, posting a .904 save percentage compared to a .864 for DeSmith, but Sullivan said the back-up goalie decision will be based on more than just that.
“I think it’s really more about a body of work than it is a short-term decision based on one game or two games,” he said. “These will be difficult decisions, but we’re excited about both guys. We think they’re both very capable.”
Given the volume of scoring chances, Friday night’s game barely resembled the style of play that will be on display in the regular-season opener next Thursday.
Hagelin said there’s plenty the Penguins could take out of the preseason finale, however.
Most notably, the team got to work on different manpower situations – a 5-on-3 disadvantage or a 6-on-5 advantage with the goalie pulled, for instance – that are hard to simulate.
“Those are things that are hard to practice in practice,” Hagelin said. “It’s good to get the real feeling in a game.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.