The Penguins lineup at practice on Monday looked a lot closer to the squad fans will see when the team resumes the regular season against the Buffalo Sabres at Mellon Arena on Tuesday night thanks to the arrival of two Olympians.
For the first time since their Russian team was eliminated by Sidney Crosby
and the Canadians on Feb. 24, forward Evgeni Malkin
and defenseman Sergei Gonchar rejoined their Penguin teammates. Both players were happy to be back with their teammates.
“I missed my teammates,” Malkin said. “It was nice to practice today. I thought we had a good practice.”
“You’re really happy to see familiar faces,” Gonchar said. “It’s a little different over there. You have a different bunch of guys, but now you’re back with your own team, and you’re playing with them. Obviously, I’m excited about it.”
Malkin and Gonchar are the first of the Penguins’ five Olympians to rejoin the team. While Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury
and Brooks Orpik
will come back as Olympic medalists, Malkin and Gonchar now have added motivation down the stretch as their heavily-favored Russian team skated away medal-less after Canada beat them in the quarterfinal, 7-3.
“We lost in the quarterfinals, and the way we lost was a big thing,” Gonchar said. “It’s a tough one, but sometimes it happens, and you just have to move forward. Obviously, you don’t want to lose in the quarterfinals and go home.”
“I don’t know what happened,” Malkin said. “Maybe some bad luck. We weren’t ready for that game. I don’t know why.”
We need wins going into the playoffs because we are the Stanley Cup champions and we need to be playing together. - Evgeni Malkin
Malkin, Gonchar and Team Russia will have an excellent chance to avenge a disappointing result this year when the Winter Olympics head to Sochi, Russia in 2014.
“I want to play for my national team in Sochi in 2014,” Malkin said. “I will be a little bit older and have more experience under my belt. … We came in sixth place (this year) and that is not good enough for Russia. I think that puts a lot of pressure on us going into the next Games.”
“We’ll see if I’ll be chosen,” Gonchar said. “Obviously, it will be up to the coaches. I’ll do my best to make sure that I’m ready for it, but you never know what the future is going to be like.”
In 2010 Russia might not have skated away with the result they were looking for as a team, but both Malkin and Gonchar delivered superb performances for their national team.
Malkin was Team Russia’s top scorer during the tournament with six points (3G-3A) in four games. His best effort came against the Czech Republic on Feb. 21 when he scored twice (including the game-winner) and added an assist.
Gonchar, who was participating in his fourth Games, led all Russian defensemen in ice time. He scored his lone goal of the tournament on a power play in the loss to Canada.
Now that their Olympic experience is behind them, Malkin and Gonchar can focus their energies on helping the Penguins perform at the top of their game over the next 20 contests as the regular season shifts to the stretch run.
Although 15 days will have passed between games when the Penguins take the ice against Buffalo on Tuesday, Malkin and Gonchar don’t expect the Penguins to take long regaining chemistry.
“We’ve been around each other for a long period of time, so I don’t think we need that much to adjust to each other,” Gonchar said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. The guys who stayed here worked hard and prepared themselves. We’re just going to join them. I don’t think we need that much time.
“We just have to make sure that our focus is turned on since we’re going to start playing. But otherwise, we know the system, and we’ve been together for a while, so I don’t think it’s going to be a problem.”
“We need wins going into the playoffs because we are the Stanley Cup champions and we need to be playing together,” Malkin added.
Before the Olympic break there weren’t too many players playing as well as Malkin and Gonchar.
Malkin will be carrying a 13-game point streak into Tuesday night, just two games shy of his career long streak. Over those 13 games, Malkin has picked up 22 points (8G-14A).
Gonchar carries a more modest three-game assist streak into the stretch run. He has notched 10 points (1G-9A) over his past 12 games.
Malkin says he wants to use his Olympic disappointment to continue playing well for the Penguins heading into the postseason.
“Of course I am a little mad after the way the Olympics went,” Malkin said. “Life continues and this is a new day with new games. … I am fine because we lost five days ago. I am back in Pittsburgh and I am happy to help my team here now.”