Kovacevic: U.S. won't hold back vs. 'Bully'

| Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, 12:46 p.m.

SOCHI, Russia — What's most amazing is that they never cringe.

Setting aside everything that makes the NHL's participation in the Olympics so wonderful, all the passion, the national pride, the unprecedented level of competition … it still blows me away at every Games how no GM, coach or player seems to pause or hesitate when discussing going head-on against a professional teammate — often a close friend — in a highest-of-stakes game.

It's as if it's taboo.

Or, as I strongly suspect, it's as if they genuinely don't mind all that much.

Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin and the United States will take to the ice Saturday against Evgeni Malkin and Russia at a throbbing Bolshoy Ice Dome amid 12,000 flag-waving, full-throated partisans. It's only the second round-robin game, but it should be tremendous. News reports here are building this up as Revenge for the Miracle or something similarly silly. It isn't that, and nothing ever will be. But it is huge.

“I doubt that any of our guys will ever have been in an atmosphere like this one,” coach Dan Bylsma said after practice Friday. “It'll feel like they packed the whole Russian nation in here.”

OK, so it'll be like the peaks of the Caucasus Mountains. Like the whole of Siberia. Like Vladimir Putin's mirror.

(Sorry. A week in Russia, and the Putin jokes roll right off the tongue. Try the borscht.)

Now, add this: Bylsma is responsible for scheming against Malkin. And after practice, Orpik and Martin told me they expect to be paired for the first time in the Olympics. That can't be an accident. Bylsma wouldn't confirm, but he conceded Orpik and Martin might be paired based on “some opponents and matchups,” and that their familiarity with Malkin and/or Sidney Crosby could be “useful.”

Translation: Orpik and Martin — in particular Orpik — will be deployed Saturday to get after Malkin.

Makes sense. Malkin can lose it from time to time and not just against the Flyers. It's a regular occurrence in the playoffs. So if Bylsma additionally sends out a nails-on-chalkboard checking center such as David Backes, he can make Malkin's life as hellish as allowed by the rules. Or beyond.

Bylsma's reply when the topic of facing his Pittsburgh stars is raised: “Geno and Sid are great players. We'll have our hands full in going against players of that caliber. We won't beat teams with skill. We know that. We have to be who we are. We have to be abrasive, get in teams' faces.”

Getting this?

The coach of the Penguins is plotting to get in his stars' faces?

Now flash back to last summer, and it was Ray Shero having a big hand in crafting the U.S. roster after all the Olympic round-robin matchups were known. That means at least some fringe players could have been brought on for certain matchups.

All Shero would say to that: “We brought in players for very specific roles. We know who they are, and we know why we need them.”

Funny, but Orpik was a spare part in early practices and a seventh defenseman in the opening 7-1 rout of Slovakia. On Saturday, suddenly, he'll play a pivotal role.

Mind you, this is no complaint. I love it, actually. The unbridled, unapologetic energy and emotion are part of what makes Olympic hockey, in my eyes, second only to soccer's World Cup as a global team competition. It's truly best on best, truly no holds barred.

“Hey, you have to go against your teammate or your friend. We all understand that,” Orpik said. “From my view, as a defenseman, a game like this is a challenge you want to rise up to. So if that's how it ends up, that we go against Geno and Alex Ovechkin … those are the games you live for.”

“I'm really excited about it. Not going to lie,” Martin said. “It'll be a game you can carry with you your whole life. Especially if you win.”

What Malkin thinks of the matchup isn't entirely clear. He has spoken only to the Russian media since arriving, fairly storming past the North American contingent once done.

Who knows if that's a game face or he's all Russian all the time now or it's just jet lag?

Orpik and Martin had virtually identical responses when I relayed that Malkin appeared to be in a bad mood here.

“The Bully?” Orpik asked.

“The Bully!” Martin exclaimed with delight. “That's what we call him back in Pittsburgh when he's like that.”

“He hates it,” Orpik added with even greater delight. “To be honest, back in Pittsburgh, we love when Geno's ‘The Bully' because nobody can stop him. I'd rather not face that version. At the same time ...”

Yeah. Here's betting No. 11 in red will hear it a time or two. And see red, too.

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