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Crosby feels brunt of Russian invasion

by Shawn P. Roarke
PITTSBURGH -- Sidney Crosby is well aware of the coming Russian invasion at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

He even had a taste of what the Olympics will be like as the Penguins hosted the Washington Capitals and their trio of Russian Olympic participants -- superstar forwards Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin and backup goalie Semyon Varlamov -- in a marquee matchup Thursday night that was the talk of the NHL landscape for the better part of a week.

Washington won the entertaining game, 6-3, and the Russians played a huge role in the proceedings.

Ovechkin had the tying goal and an empty-net goal. He also had an assist, eight shots on goal and seven hits. He was a plus-2. Semin, meanwhile, had the prettiest assist of the night, a nifty saucer pass to Tomas Fleischmann for the winning goal. For Pittsburgh, Evgeni Malkin assisted on each of Pittsburgh's three goals. Defenseman Sergei Gonchar played almost 26 minutes.

Many people are pegging Crosby's Team Canada, the host nation, and Russia to be playing for the gold medal on Feb. 28. If that comes to pass, Ovechkin and Semin -- as well as Malkin, who sits a couple stalls down from Crosby, and Gonchar, who sits across the Penguins' room from Crosby -- will have to be outstanding.

"You look at Geno and Alex (Ovechkin) and Semin and the list goes on," Crosby said. "They have a lot of dangerous guys. That’s their team, and that’s their makeup. It’s still going to take the (whole) team, but at the same time, they have a lot of guys who can do the job, for sure."

Crosby has been hearing about the Russians practically since he started pushing a bench around at the local rink in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, taking his first choppy steps on his journey to hockey icon. He has even experienced international competition against the Russians, defeating them in the gold-medal game of the 2005 World Junior Championships.

But he knows the two weeks in Vancouver will bring things to a whole new, virtually unimaginable level. When the puck is dropped in Vancouver, all eyes will be on the host Canadians and the upset-minded Russians.

And if hockey is lucky enough to have the two teams meet during the competition, the 44 players involved in that game will join the pantheon of greats -- Paul Henderson, Slava Fetisov, Bobby Clarke and Vladislav Tretiak all jump immediately to mind -- that have butted heads in perhaps the fiercest international rivalry in all of sports.

"That matchup is always going to be talked about, and it goes on for a long time here," Crosby said. "That's always going to be a rivalry, and the way it is today just adds to it."

The way it is today, by the way, is that international competition is under the microscope like never before.

With the immediacy and global reach of today's media platforms, every angle of the Olympics will be examined and dissected. Heck, Olympic rosters have been debated for the better part of a year before they were submitted by the respective federations late last month.

And the players are not immune from the passions that are starting to bubble to the surface.

Crosby and Malkin are fine teammates in Pittsburgh, but they won't discuss the Olympics. It is too sensitive a subject for even the best of friendships, it seems.

"We both know the rivalry there," Crosby said. "It's pretty serious. There is no joking that needs to be done. We know once those games come it is going to be intense.  There's not much to be said. It goes on way too far back for us to be joking about it a whole lot."

No, everything about Vancouver will be deadly serious for the 23 players selected to carry the hopes and dreams of a nation into a two-week, anything-can-happen tournament. But Crosby -- a hockey prodigy for more than a decade now -- knows the score and is willing to accept the terms of the deal for a shot to drape an Olympic gold medal around his neck.

"We always have pressure," he said. "That's not any different whether it’s World Juniors or the Olympics or whatever the case is. That’s kind of what we grow up accepting and understanding. The fact is in Canada, for sure, you want to be that much better.

"But I don't think you can really put more pressure than there already is. Everyone expects to win, so that's pretty much it. There's no real beating around the bush. That's the way it is."

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