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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

Evgeni Malkin’s quest for a gold medal at the World Junior Championships begins Monday night when he leads Russia against Sweden at Vancouver’s Prospera Place (10 p.m. EST). Malkin, the 19-year-old centerman who is playing in his third world junior tournament, is the captain of the Russian team.

It’s another showcase event for the Penguins’ first-round pick (2nd overall) in 2004 – another international stage for the 6-foot-3, 195-pound Malkin to display his wondrous all-around skills.

Malkin last week received an extraordinary honor for a teenager when he also was named to Russia’s Olympic team for the 2006 tournament, to be held in February at Turin, Italy. Malkin will be one of the youngest players in the elite field featuring the world’s best players – and will certainly be the youngest playing for any of the traditional powerhouse teams.

But, for the next two weeks in Vancouver, he will be able to test himself against players in his own age group – the World Junior tournament is exclusively for players “under 20.”  The expectations are enormous, especially since he put up three goals and 10 points in six games last year as an 18-year-old, as Russia claimed a silver medal (losing to Sidney Crosby and Canada in the gold medal game).

Three other Penguins prospects also are competing in the World Junior Championships – forward Johannes Salmonsson of Sweden (2nd round, 31st overall, 2004); defenseman Kristopher Letang of Canada (3rd round, 62nd overall, 2005) and defenseman Tommi Leinonen of Finland (4th round, 125th overall, 2005).

But the spotlight will be on Malkin – for obvious reasons.

He was one of the outstanding players at last year’s WJC, teaming with Alexander Ovechkin to steer Russia to the gold medal game. And he has been a dominant force in this year’s Russian Super League, ringing up 15 goals and 21 assists for 36 points in 33 games.

There were reports throughout the fall that Russian hockey officials wanted to hold Malkin out of the World Junior Championships to save him for the Olympics, but the Russian federation recently changed his mind and decided to include him at the WJC.

Russia’s other preliminary round games will be on Wednesday, Dec. 28 vs. Slovakia (10 p.m. EST), Thursday, Dec. 29 vs. Latvia (10 p.m.) and Saturday, Dec. 31 vs. the Czech Republic (10 p.m.).

The WJC medal-round playoffs begin on Monday, Jan. 2, with the gold medal game scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 5.

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