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Kovacevic: From here to Sochi with … pucks

| Saturday, July 20, 2013, 11:04 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins star Sidney Crosby will be at the Olympics in Russia, representing Canada.

Our region's chance of producing a Lindsey Vonn, Apolo Anton Ohno or Shaun White for the next Winter Olympics is about the same as that of a luge track being built down the side of Mount Washington. Heck, the one local kid who probably ever tried that sport is out. Communicated recently with Ross Township's Robby Huerbin, one of USA Luge's last cuts in 2010, and he's moved on with his life.

But man, do we have hockey lined up for Sochi 2014.

So much, in fact, that it's easy to see even now, exactly 200 days from the lighting of the torch along Russia's Black Sea coast, that these will be the most Pittsburgh-heavy Olympics in history.

“I think it's both an honor and exciting for our franchise and our city to have so many players and staff involved with the Winter Olympics,” Ray Shero was saying before the Penguins' development camp scrimmage Saturday at Consol Energy Center.

Let's count the ways ...

Shero's a good a place to start, since he'll be instrumental — anything but a figurehead — in assisting Team USA GM and old mentor David Poile in picking the roster for what promises to be another gold-medal contender.

So will Dan Bylsma, who could be seen fairly walking on air Friday at Consol after the NHL finally, formally sewed up the agreement to return to the Olympics. He'll be U.S. head coach for the first time, and it isn't understatement to suggest it's a post he's passionately coveted for years.

“I'm humbled by it,” Bylsma will tell you.

But the Games are always about the athletes, and it's there where the Penguins and Pittsburgh could make the greatest impact.

We know Sidney Crosby will be there, seeking his first real team triumph since that golden goal against Ryan Miller in Vancouver elevated his profile to global and his status to legendary in Canada. I covered those Games and can attest that Sid didn't just survive the biggest stage of his life. He thrived on it.

Don't think for a moment he'll be satisfied with a lesser sequel. It's just not in the genes.

“When you play for Canada, that's the expectation,” Crosby said. “You want to go there and find a way to win gold.”

The only other Pittsburgh presence on that Canadian team was Marc-Andre Fleury as a third-string afterthought, but that could change: Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur, the goaltenders ahead of him, are hardly locks. Fleury could be back, or his recent reputation for crumbling under pressure could make him radioactive. We'll see. But Kris Letang should make it this time. James Neal should get strong consideration. And depending on the roster's makeup, maybe even a defensive ace such as Pascal Dupuis gets a look.

There's more, of course. There are rumblings that Shero and Bylsma will consider using their self-described “shutdown pairing” of Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin in the same role for the U.S. Orpik was there in Vancouver, and Martin's coming off the season of his life. Jussi Jokinen and maybe defense prospect Olli Maatta — who looked terrific in the scrimmage Saturday, by the way — could be there for Finland, too.

Am I forgetting anything?

Oh, yeah: These might well become the Geno Games.

The Russians' billions of dollars in preparation pale to what they're likely to invest emotionally in the first Olympics on their soil since Moscow was boycotted in 1980. And perhaps no athlete is better suited to satisfy that than Evgeni Malkin.

No, he won't be the nation's flag-bearer, as Aleksey Morozov was in Vancouver. If that job goes to any hockey player, it will be to Ilya Kovalchuk, who earlier this month left the Devils and a guaranteed $77 million to return to Russia in his prime.

And no, Malkin won't seek the spotlight. That's just not him. That's Alexander Ovechkin, and Malkin will gleefully concede it there, as he does here with Crosby.

But that might be all Malkin concedes. I remember his intensity in Vancouver, when he and Ovechkin would try to outdo each other in warmups, then went on virtual seek-and-destroy missions in the games. The man was possessed.

He will want this. And if you're of the mind, as I am, that he's got the most talent, he's in a prime position to gain everything that Crosby did in Vancouver and maybe more.

And all that's to say nothing of having local NHL products such as Brandon Saad, John Gibson and others vying for U.S. roster spots.

Ryan Malone broke the ground in Vancouver with his silver, but these kids could take it to the next level. Remember, they did it with the U.S. junior team.

Same goes for Robert Morris alum Brianne McLaughlin, already chosen to return to the U.S. women's side. Those ladies are sick of finishing second to Canada.

“To have a goaltender such as Brianne back is a great tribute to her and the Robert Morris women's program,” Shero said.

Remember that fuss a few months ago when the U.S. Olympic Committee publicly asked if Pittsburgh could someday host the Games?

This might be it, only 5,531 miles away.

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