By Chip Minemyer
For The Tribune-Democrat
When defenseman Sergei Gonchar went down with an injury in Game 4 of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ second-round playoff battle with the Washington Capitals, Chris Stewart was suddenly on the spot.
As the Penguins’ head athletic trainer, Stewart was charged with getting “Sarge” back onto the ice in time to help Pittsburgh advance to the next round of the Stanley Cup chase.
Gonchar bounced back from a knee-on-knee collision with Caps star Alexander Ovechkin in time for Game 7, and tallied an assist on a Sidney Crosby goal to help the Pens knock out Washington with a 6-2 win.
Gonchar was also in action when the Pens beat the Carolina Hurricanes, 3-2, in the opener of the Eastern Conference finals on Monday.
“He’s the quarterback of our power play,” Stewart said. “Just to have a guy come back and rejoin the team with an injury, that was big. Just getting him on the ice was critical.”
Stewart, a Johnstown native, is charged with keeping Penguins players upright and skating. The importance of that job grows exponentially in the playoffs – when every period, every shift, every trip down the ice could be a turning point in a series.
“It’s part of our job,” Stewart said. “This time of year there are no injuries.
“We’re here to keep the guys on the ice. As long as everything stays under the radar and we don’t have any injuries, you never hear my name. That’s OK with me.”
Ironically, Stewart’s goal now is to help his current team stay healthy and knock out his former team.
Stewart was the athletic trainer with the Hurricanes when they won the Stanley Cup in 2006. He came to Pittsburgh before the 2008-09 season along with another Johns-town native, equipment manager Dana Heinze – who helped the Tampa Bay Lightning win a championship in 2005.
The Penguins and Hurricanes will meet in Game 2 Thursday at Mellon Arena.
“I’m a Penguin now,” Stewart said. “I had a great experience in Carolina. Half the team that was there when I was there, is still there. … It was great winning the Cup. And you’ll always have that attachment. It will always be there. I’ll always have friends there.”
Stewart, like Heinze, got his start with the Johnstown Chiefs in the ECHL.
Stewart patched up Chiefs players for nearly a decade beginning in 1996, when he was with Western Pa. Sports Medicine. From Johnstown, Stewart went to the American Hockey League’s Lowell (Mass.) Lock Monsters. Then he arrived in Carolina just in time for the Hurricanes’ championship run.
As a trainer for both teams, Stewart has had a front-row seat for one of the subplots of this Hurricanes-Penguins tussle. In March 2006, Pens defenseman Brooks Orpik delivered a huge hit on Carolina’s Erik Cole, who suffered two broken vertebrae and missed much of the team’s run to the Cup. Cole did eventually return to the ice in time for Game 6 of the 2006 finals.
Stewart said he and Orpik have never discussed the hit on Cole.
“That’s really something I don’t think about,” Stewart said. “That injury was something unfortunate that happened to Erik. It wasn’t done on purpose. It’s not my business to bring it up with Brooksie.”
Stewart, Orpik and the rest of the Pens have plenty on their minds.
The Pens are three wins away from a trip to the Stanley Cup finals for a second straight year.
But they know a 1-0 series has not been a secure situation in these playoffs.
“We’re ecstatic to be here. Obviously, there are only four teams still playing,” Stewart said. “But there are no guarantees. The guys in our locker room certainly understand that.
“We’re confident, yeah, but you can’t be too confident. Just look at Carolina. They lost the first games of their two other series and came back to win. We were down 2-0 to Washington and came back. When I was with Carolina, we had to come back to win the Cup.”
Speaking of comebacks, both Pittsburgh and Carolina were out of the playoff chase late in the season before turning things around.
Carolina climbed to the sixth seed in the conference before taking out No. 3 New Jersey and No. 1 Boston in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
After Dan Bylsma took the coaching reins and trades brought Chris Kunitz, Bill Guerin and Craig Adams to the Pens, Pittsburgh rebounded to garner the fourth seed, then bounced Philadelphia and Washington from the playoffs.
Stewart credits the Penguins’ management with turnaround as much as the new faces on the bench.
“They brought in the right people,” Stewart said. “(General Manager) Ray Shero’s done a hell of a job. This organization and these guys deserve all the credit in the world. They do things the right way, and you can see it on the ice.
“And it doesn’t hurt having (Evgeni) Malkin and Crosby, too.”