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Over the Boards: Subban set to do whatever it takes

Wednesday, 02.12.2014 / 3:00 AM
Dan Rosen  - NHL.com Senior Writer

SOCHI -- P.K. Subban might be the next Drew Doughty for the Canadian Olympic team. The Montreal Canadiens star defenseman also might just be a seventh or eighth defensemen for the duration of the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Last season's Norris Trophy winner won't mind either way.

Subban, arguably the most polarizing and debated player on the Canadian roster, appears to be coming into his first Olympic tournament with no ego of which to speak. He is filled by the long-anticipated feeling of excitement to be here and the tantalizing idea of how he might be able to contribute to a gold-medal performance, but he said he has no expectations for what his role might be and no demands on what it should be.

"Obviously I feel I deserve to be here, but the attitude you come in here with is so important," Subban said after practice Tuesday. "I'd rather be overexcited about being here rather than be analyzing everything, thinking this is what I deserve, this is how I should be used. It's different than with your club team. You might not play the first game and then might end up playing the most minutes by the end of the tournament. You don't know what can happen. You just gotta go there, have fun, enjoy the experience. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We don't know the future with ice hockey in the Winter Olympics with all the NHL players, so enjoy the experience.

"I know I won the Norris Trophy. Everybody knows that, but at the end of the day it's not about what you think, it's about how you're being used and accepting that role."

For now it appears Subban's role will be either as Canada's seventh defenseman and power-play specialist, or as a healthy scratch. He has been on Canada's fourth defense pairing with Dan Hamhuis and the decision for coach Mike Babcock comes down to if he wants an extra guy for his penalty kill or someone like Subban, who is obviously an offensive juggernaut but at times can be a defensive liability.

If it's the latter and Subban is pegged as a guy who can help Canada's power play by playing in the neighborhood of eight to 10 minutes per game (he plays 25 minutes per game with the Canadiens), he'll take it because it's a start, an opportunity to earn so much more.

Remember, four years ago Drew Doughty was pegged as an extra defenseman and a guy who might be able to help the Canadians move the puck and have success on the power play. By the end of the tournament Doughty was paired with Duncan Keith and was one of the defensemen Babcock came to rely on most.

"Hey, it's a role and it's important," Subban said. "Just talking about a specialist, if you happen to be a power-play specialist, you look at Major League Baseball and the closer. Having a guy that comes in is just as important as anybody else. It doesn't matter what your role is. You gotta accept it, have fun, enjoy it."

Just then Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo walked past Subban. Luongo, of course, was the backup to Martin Brodeur when the tournament started four years ago, but he became the No. 1 after a 5-3 loss to the United States and helped Canada go on to win the gold medal.

"Roberto Luongo will tell you that, just enjoy it," Subban said. "The Olympics don't come every year and you don't know what can happen over the next four years."

Subban is definitely enjoying the experience so far.

"It's world-class players here, man," he said. "I just like the fact that after practice I can be doing keep-aways with Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby. I'm hoping by the end of this tournament that when I play keep-away back in Montreal I better be the best player out there."

Toews, Nash ready to reprise their role as checkers

Four years ago in Vancouver, Toews and Rick Nash emerged as two of Canada's top checkers and penalty killers. Toews and Nash are ready to do it again in Sochi, possibly with Patrick Sharp on their line.

Can they rekindle that chemistry they had in Vancouver four years later, chemistry that helped Toews get voted as the best forward in the tournament?

"Why not?" Toews said Tuesday. "It has to be. No choice. We know we can play smart defensively. He's got that speed and that long stick. We can penalty kill. We can come back hard and find ways to turn pucks over. In a way I find him similar to Marian Hossa; he's a big guy who seems to be everywhere. It'll come defense first for our line and we'll try to create what we can off of that."

The defensive role is one the Chicago Blackhawks captain covets.

"We've got a ton of playmakers on our team, and I consider myself to be one, but if someone's gotta do the dirty work and set that example, I'd like to try and do that," Toews said. "If you're putting less pressure on yourself to score goals it seems to come a little bit easier. I'm going to try to find ways to do that. Across our lineup if we play that mentality that in some of these games we expect to be defensive on the big sheet, we're going to find ways to force other teams to make mistakes. For our line that's one thing we want to do."

Toews didn't put any pressure on himself to score in Vancouver, and he wound up getting his first goal in the gold-medal game. It put Canada up 1-0 in the first period.

"I'll try not to wait until the last game this time," he said.

Kovalchuk has no regrets

Former New Jersey Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk is content with his decision to retire from the NHL last summer in order to return to Russia to play in the KHL for SKA St. Petersburg.

Kovalchuk says he enjoys having his mother, Luba, come to his games and be around his three children. He said he has had no second thoughts about the decision he made.

"It wasn't a decision [made] just in one day or two days," Kovalchuk said. "I was thinking about it. I think I made the right decision."

Kovalchuk is ninth in the KHL with 40 points in 44 games. St. Petersburg is second in the Western Conference with four regular-season games left to play after the Olympics are finished.

"I had a great 11 years in the NHL and I appreciate everything that they've done for me," Kovalchuk said. "Right now it's a new page, new challenges for me. I feel like I'm home, that's the most important thing."

Part of being home and being arguably the most important face for the KHL is having to be part of the hype for the Olympics. Kovalchuk said he's been asked about the Olympics quite often this season, but it's a sign to him that everybody is excited for the hockey tournament to finally begin.

"Everybody wants to know what we feel and how we feel," he said. "Now finally everybody's here and I think it will be a crazy two weeks."

Stunned Maatta can't believe where he is

Finnish defenseman Olli Maatta feels like a kid again, and he's only 19 years old.

"As a little kid you always want to be Olympian, you want to be in Olympics," said Maatta, who has 23 points and a plus-12 rating in 57 games as a rookie with the Pittsburgh Penguins this season. "I never thought it came this soon, and I'm really excited to be here."

Maatta couldn't stop smiling as he spoke to the media following practice Monday. He had just finished skating on the same sheet of ice, in the same jersey as Teemu Selanne.

"That's a dream come true," Maatta said.

He was standing beside Olli Jokinen, who he also used to watch for years on the national team. Now he was on their team at the Olympics. With the jet lag and all, it was a little too much for Maatta to believe.

"Yeah, it feels pretty good," he said after pausing to think about his words. "I mean, like, I feel like I'm a little boy just watching all these top-rated athletes here -- like everybody, even the ski jumpers, skiers, those guys. I'm just here watching. I'm a big fan of winter sports, and it's awesome experience thus far. I don't think I'm getting used to it too much, but it's awesome."

Formerly retired Jokinen back for more

Jokinen said he was retiring from international hockey after helping Finland take the bronze medal four years ago in Vancouver. He went back on his word.

Jokinen, now with the Winnipeg Jets, is here in Sochi and thinks the Finns have a legitimate chance to medal for the fifth time in the past six Olympics.

"You know what, four years ago, I was never even thinking that I would play hockey this long," Jokinen said. "At that time, I thought it would be maybe one year or two years [more]. But I've been able to stay healthy and I've kind of found a new passion of playing. Playing in Calgary under Brent [Sutter], he kind of gave me a new life over there. I had a pretty tough go there in New York [at the] end of the year that year. Hockey wasn't that much fun. Then went back to Calgary and really enjoyed the hockey again."

Jokinen said Finland coach Erkka Westerlund called him after last season and asked if he'd still be interested in playing for the national team.

"I was never expecting that call to happen," he said. "He asked if he could put me on the long list of the players … and I thought about it for a couple weeks and called him back and told him 'Yeah, you can put me on that list,'" Jokinen said. "It kind of gave me motivation to have a good start to the season. Obviously, it's an honor to play for Team Finland. This is a tough team to make. We've got a lot of good players playing in North America and a lot of good players playing overseas here. I'm happy and honored that I was able to make this team. I can't wait to start playing."

So is this it for him? Will he announce his retirement from international hockey after this tournament? Will it stick this time?

"We were laughing on the way here in the flight, me and [Kimmo] Timonen," Jokinen said. "We were laughing, 'Here we go again.' I guess this time it's better to zip it up and not say anything, because you never know."

Well, not exactly, at least according to Timonen.

Sochi will be Timonen's last Olympics

Timonen said these Olympics are extra special for him because, unlike Jokinen, he is firm in the fact that he will not play for the Finnish national team again after the tournament.

"This is my last, so this is special," the Philadelphia Flyers defenseman said. "If you think about past, I played all the junior national teams since we were 15 and all the way through the Olympics. This is my fifth time here so it's a great honor to obviously be here, but it's a great story for me to end. It's special."

Timonen said he has been operating his career on a year-by-year basis since the tournament in Vancouver four years ago, except he still has the desire to play and compete, so he's still going.

"And no one has told me yet that you can't play hockey anymore, that's the biggest one," Timonen said. "They just keep giving me ice time and playing me, so I'm still here. But this is my last time. Now I mean it. This time I mean it."

Chara: Gaborik's absence an opportunity for someone else

Slovakia captain Zdeno Chara is looking to some of the young players on the team to step up in place of injured star Marian Gaborik, who had to withdraw from the Olympics as he continues to let his broken collarbone heal.

Chara didn't name names, but he may very well be referring to the three players on the Slovak roster who were born in the early 1990s: Detroit Red Wings forwards Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco, and Richard Panik of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Tatar and Panik are 23 and Jurco is 21.

"You're going to have injuries, guys missing the tournament, and we're for sure going to miss him but we have to go without him," Chara said of Gaborik. "It's part of the job. You hope it doesn't happen, but we have other young players coming up and it's another chance for them to show that they can play on this big level. It's going to be a great experience."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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