Penguins' Malkin eagerly awaits Sochi
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Evgeni Malkin is a less than a week away from the most amazing homecoming of his life. Yet he continues to look for any available distraction instead of thinking about the Winter Olympics, which kick off with an opening ceremony Friday in Sochi, Russia.
“I don't want (to) think about Sochi right now,” Malkin said before the Penguins faced the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday night at Jobing.com Arena. “We are here. It's (the) moms trip, and I get to meet nice people. We had dinner at Ron Burkle's house (in) Los Angeles. There's a lot to do, and I'm glad.
“Of course I am excited, but to think about Sochi … it's too much, it won't help me.”
Malkin returned to Pittsburgh in September for his eighth NHL season with a particular objective: He wanted his next trip to Moscow, his summer home, to be one only he can take.
“I know it is not easy,” Malkin said. “But (it) is my dream: Same year, and Russia wins (the) Olympics, Pittsburgh wins (the) Stanley Cup.”
Malkin is the only Russian player on the Penguins.
He is perhaps the one Russian player capable of delivering that country its first Olympic gold medal in the sport it cares about most.
“Malkin, when he's feeling right, can dominate for any team he's on,” Washington Capitals winger and Russia teammate Alex Ovechkin recently told the Tribune-Review. “He can take over like maybe nobody else. We might need him to do that.”
Response as motivation
Penguins teammate Chris Kunitz, who will play for Team Canada, recalled Malkin's 2009 playoff MVP run as the best example of how Malkin can rise above the level of even elite competition.
“I've seen him do some unreal things,” Kunitz said. “He did a lot of them in the playoffs that year.”
The 36 points by Malkin were the seventh most in any NHL postseason and remain more than any player has produced in the past 20 years.
It was no coincidence, former Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar said, that Malkin offered the 2009 playoffs as a response to the previous postseason, which he finished with five points in the last 10 games after opening with 17 in the first 10.
Malkin, with the benefit of perspective, considers the Penguins' loss in the 2008 Cup Final, in which he finished with a goal and two assists, as his low point as a player.
“Maybe we have two Cups if I score like I should,” Malkin said. “Maybe (it) was my fault.”
Overcoming bitter disappointment is always his motivation, Malkin said.
His first run at an NHL scoring title in 2008 followed him not scoring a goal in the 2007 playoffs. Malkin finished second in the 2008 points chase and won it the following season. His second scoring title, and lone regular-season MVP, was achieved a season after torn knee ligaments prevented him from playing in the 2011 playoffs.
Malkin did not produce a point for the Penguins in the Eastern Conference final last postseason. They were swept by Boston.
“My job is to score so the team can win,” Malkin said. “We lost. I can't forget that.”
Malkin is second in the NHL in points per game at 1.23 — a fraction better than his 11th-best all-time average, 1.22, and he has missed 11 games because of lower-body injuries.
“I'm playing, I think, not bad,” Malkin said.
He said he should be scoring more. He wants to provide a more physical presence. His passing is not sharp.
“When we get to Sochi, I want to be ready, at my best,” Malkin said. “I'm not (there) yet.”
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who will captain Team Canada, said Malkin's production this season — 15 goals and 53 points but 11 and 44 over the past 30 games — is especially impressive given he missed three weeks with various injuries.
“I think he's ready,” Crosby said, referring to the Olympics. “A lot of those Russian guys, I think you can tell their games are where they are supposed to be. I think you can tell they're pretty excited.”
Figuring it out
Malkin has not shown that excitement to many of his Penguins teammates or Pittsburgh-area friends. He intentionally has shied away from talking too much to North American media about hot-button topics — Russian laws about homosexuality and Sochi's security — because he is fearful his words would be lost in translation.
Malkin has answered teammates' question about those subjects and told the Tribune-Review he feels his parents and brother will be “very safe” in Sochi outside the heavily guarded Olympic village.
Malkin might find peace there, too, Crosby said.
An unrivaled celebrity throughout Canada, Crosby said he turned to “the Olympics experience” to alleviate a sense of pressure to perform for his host county at the Vancouver Games.
“Being with the other athletes allowed me to have fun,” Crosby said. “There were some long days there. You weren't playing till 5 p.m. and there was no morning skate, so you were just sitting around getting ready for, basically, elimination games. You needed to keep busy.
“The more (I) could get involved with all the Olympics stuff, the better I felt.”
Crosby felt comfortable enough to score the Golden Goal for Canada.
Handling media responsibilities — never Malkin's favorite part of stardom — should not prove a hassle because the Olympic “mix zone” limits athletes' time talking to reporters, Crosby said.
Also, Gonchar added, Malkin is not “the Sidney Crosby of Russia.” That title, he said, is shared by Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk, the latter who famously left the NHL this summer to play in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League.
Malkin's role for Team Russia will be similar to the one he is tasked with for the Penguins, Gonchar said.
“It's the way he likes it,” Gonchar said. “He's a little bit behind, and then he gets to surprise everybody.”
Ovechkin, the NHL leader in goals, is counting on a “big tournament for” Malkin, who scored five goals and 12 points in 11 games at the 2006 and '10 Olympics.
“He is one of the best passers in the world,” Ovechkin said. “But you can't just play him to pass all the time.”
Penguins defenseman Paul Martin, whose Team USA will face Russia in the second game for both squads, said that even though Ovechkin is arguably the planet's finest sniper, “you have to key on Geno. … He's just too good with the puck.”
“He's one of the best in our league at just putting into an area — even if it's right in front of your skates or stick — where you can't get the puck,” Martin said. “It's all about having a good stick on him, keeping yourself between him and the net.
“It's going to be up to the whole team because you know Ovechkin is going to be looming around and Geno can find him for that one-timer.”
Make a memory
Malkin needs a new memory. These Olympics are all about that for him.
He said the second-worst moment of his hockey life occurred four years ago on Feb. 24: Russia lost to Canada, 7-3, in a quarterfinal game at the Vancouver Olympics. That defeat prevented the Russians from playing for a medal.
“I think about it,” Ovechkin said. “I know Geno thinks about it. All Russians do.”
Malkin does, but his plan to properly respond — as he has done so often with the Penguins — is to think about it a lot less as his shot at redemption approaches.
“These Olympics are huge for Russia because we can maybe change the way people think about us around the world,” Gonchar said. “Hockey is the main event. It's what everybody back home has talked about since we were given the Olympics.
“Russians expect to win. Canada just did it at home at the last Olympics. And, listen, Geno is one of those guys where you always expect … something big. He's one of those players.”
Malkin was one of the players by himself on the Penguins' first Mothers Trip this past week.
Natalia Malkin's son is coming to see her, and she might witness history — maybe even get to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin, whom Malkin said she could if Russia wins gold.
That, Malkin said, would provide the ultimate memory worth all the practicing that began two decades ago on bumpy roads in Magnitogorsk.
“I can't wait,” Malkin said. “It's (the) Olympics. It's Russia. It's family and friends and maybe a little bit (of) pressure on me.
“It's soon. I'll be ready.”