With names such as Alexei Kovalev, Pavel Bure and Sergei Fedorov, among others, comprising their roster over the past 12 years, it’s no surprise that Team Russia is always among the handful of contenders at the Winter Olympics.
As the 2010 Olympic Games loom just around the corner, there is a different feeling surrounding the Russians. Thanks to a pair of reigning Stanley Cup champions in the Penguins Evgeni Malkin
and defenseman Sergei Gonchar, two-time Hart Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and New Jersey sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, the Russians aren’t just expected to compete in Vancouver – they are among the favorites to capture to capture the gold.
“I am excited,” Malkin said. “They are going to be great games.”
“I was a part of three Olympics already and this is going to be a fourth one for me,” Gonchar said. “I remember them all and they are going to be something you remember forever. To be a part of it is a huge honor and obviously I am looking forward to it.”
Malkin, who will be donning a Russian Olympic sweater for the second time, will be asked to fill a much bigger role on the team than his first Olympic go-around during the 2006 Torino Games.
During those games, Malkin, then 19 and still eight months from making his NHL debut, was more of a role player for the Russians, seeing action on the bottom lines and serving as an ace penalty killer. Malkin excelled in his limited ice time, picking up six points (2G-4A) in seven games as the Russians finished in fourth place.
Four years later, Malkin’s role will be far from limited.
As the NHL’s reigning regular season and playoff scoring leader, Malkin has established himself as one of the elite talents in the world. Russia is expecting his clutch performance in the 2009 postseason to carry over to the international level.
“It is not a lot of pressure on me,” Malkin said. “We have a lot of good players and coaches. We have a good team and we will come ready to play.”
Coming ready to play won’t be a problem for Gonchar, who would complete the Olympic trifecta with a gold medal following a silver in 1998 and a bronze in 2002. At 35-years-old, Gonchar realizes this could very well be his final chance to take home that coveted first-place medal.
“You understand that there aren’t as many chances for you,” Gonchar said. “For me, it is my fourth Olympics, so it is special. I probably feel more (appreciative) about this one than the previous ones.”
One thing Malkin, Gonchar and the rest of their teammates won’t have leading up to the Games is much preparation time.
The Penguins play host to the Nashville Predators at 1 p.m. on Feb. 14, and following that game Malkin and Gonchar will board a plane bound for Vancouver because two days later the Russians will drop the puck against Team Latvia at Canada Hockey Place (General Motors Place).
“It is a little hard to not have a couple days off,” Malkin said. “After our last game we fly to Vancouver and play. But everybody will be in the same situation.”
“There’s not going to be enough time for us to prepare,” Gonchar added. “But at the same time, everyone’s in the same situation. It’s what everyone is going to face.”
Unlike most of the other top contenders – including the Americans and Canadians – Russia’s squad will not be comprised entirely of players from the NHL. The Russian roster includes nine players from the Kontinental Hockey League, including Fedorov and former Penguins winger Aleksey Morozov.
“They’re all good players, so it won’t take us a long time to get used to,” Gonchar said. “If you think about it, there are a bunch of players who played in the NHL. You know those guys and you play with them at some point. I’m sure it’s just a matter of a few days to get used to.”
Speaking of getting used to something – Penguins fans will have to get used to Malkin wearing No. 11 during the Olympics.
Malkin’s usual No. 71 will be worn by Kovalchuk, who cannot wear his No. 17 because it is retired by the Russians in honor of legendary Soviet star Valeri Kharlamov.
Switching numbers is no problem for Malkin, who grew up wearing No. 11.
“I wore No. 11 until my first game in the Super League when 11 was taken by an older player,” Malkin said. “I took 71 because it looked similar.”