Russian Orthodox Christmas is still 13 days away but that didn’t prevent Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin
and defenseman Sergei Gonchar from receiving an early present Friday morning. Malkin and Gonchar were among 23 players selected by general manager Vladislav Tretiak to represent Russia at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver.
Both players expressed their delight at being chosen to represent their country following practice on Saturday night at Southpointe.
“To play for the national team is a big honor for me,” Gonchar said. “I didn’t think about it that much to be honest with you. … I was hoping I was going to make it and play there.”
“I am very excited,” Malkin said. “We have a very good team. I thank the coach. I am going to try to help my team. I have not played with the national team in three years so it’s good for me.”
Each has plenty of international experience as Malkin and Gonchar have represented their country on several occasions, including the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy. Russia placed fourth in those Games, losing to the Czech Republic in the Bronze medal game.
“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.”
Although both were near-locks neither hurt their case with Tretiak in attendance on Wednesday night during an 8-2 defeat of the Ottawa Senators at Mellon Arena. Malkin finished off his fourth career hat trick while Gonchar added a goal and two assists.
Malkin, only 19 during the Turino Games, was one of the top forwards for Russia in 2006, registering six points (2G-4A) in seven games. He was also a top penalty killer for the Russians. This time more offense will be expected from Malkin as he moves up to center one of the top two lines. Malkin believes the plethora of offensive talent on the team will ease his transition in becoming a team leader.
“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.”
Malkin says he will be ready no matter who head coach Slava Bykov surrounds him with, although fans from all around the world will clamor to combine the potential all-world trio of Malkin, the Washington Capitals Alexander Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk of the Atlanta Thrashers.
“I want to play with Ovechkin,” Malkin said. “We have played together before. … I have also played with Kovalchuk before. We will see what the lines will be. It doesn’t matter who I will play with I will be ready.”
As a veteran who has been around the game a long time both in the NHL and internationally, Gonchar said it’s only natural for Malkin to have to assume an even larger role in his second go-around on the Olympic stage.
“When you grow up your role changes,” Gonchar said. “He has proven himself at the NHL during the regular season and in the playoffs. Now he has to do it at the international level and prove himself during the Olympic Games.”
Malkin last suited up for Russia during the 2007 World Championships held in Moscow. He notched 10 points (5G-5A) in nine games that spring to earn a berth on the all-tournament team.
Gonchar will be representing Russia in Olympic competition for the fourth time. He was a member of the silver-medal winning Russian entry in 1998 and captured a bronze medal in 2002. In 20 career Olympic Games Gonchar has four assists.
“I would say for any player, I don’t care what age you are, I don’t think you take this for granted,” Gonchar said. “At any point in your career it’s a big honor. It’s probably more special now.
“You understand that there aren’t as many chances for you. For me, it is my fourth Olympics, so it is special. I probably feel more (appreciative) about this one than the previous ones.”
Gonchar’s most recent international competition also came during the 2007 World Championships when he registered five points (1G-4A) in nine games. During those games he was paired with Andrei Markov of the Montreal Canadiens and Gonchar said he wouldn’t oppose a reunion with the highly-skilled blueliner in Vancouver.
“I played with him in the World Championships in Moscow,” Gonchar said. “We played together and we had a good chemistry. I don’t know what the coach has in mind but at the same time I think we have played well together and we understand each other.”
Russia is one of the first countries to name their provisionary roster as the United States and Canadian squads are expected to be announced within the next week. Several Penguins, Alex Goligoski, Bill Guerin and Brooks Orpik
for the U.S. and Sidney Crosby
, Marc-Andre Fleury
and Jordan Staal
for Canada, are among the top candidates for their respective countries.
As head coach Dan Bylsma expressed his delight in watching Malkin and Gonchar become the first Penguins to be officially selected to represent their countries, he also talked about expecting similar announcements in the coming days – something he thinks is great for both the organization and the individual players.
“I don’t know when the scheduled announcements are for each team but we are certainly excited to see those guys be a part of that,” Bylsma said. “I think we all expected them to be. It’s a great honor.
“It is a big day for them and we are certainly pleased to see our guys be a part of that.”
Final rosters must be submitted by Feb. 15, 2010.