Penguins star Malkin angry after Russia's flameout at Olympics
Evgeni Malkin tried to leave the Olympics behind a week ago.
Instead of staying for the closing ceremony in Sochi, Russia, Malkin caught a flight to Moscow, where he owns an apartment, the morning after Team Russia was eliminated from the Olympic men's hockey tournament.
He returned to Pittsburgh on Monday and practiced with the Penguins at Consol Energy Center on Tuesday. His demeanor was unmistakable to longtime teammates.
“Angry,” James Neal said of his regular center with the Penguins.
“He hasn't said much,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “He's just mad, I think.”
For Malkin, an expected professional high point — the Winter Olympics staged in his hockey-mad homeland — provided one of the more bitter experiences.
It lingered Tuesday.
Malkin declined comment, though he planned to speak publicly Wednesday. Teammates and close friends said they doubted Malkin would reveal many of the details that contributed to ruining his Olympics experience.
Dismayed, still, by Russia's flameout at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Malkin had looked upon the Sochi Games as a shot at redemption and an opportunity to make history by helping his country to its first gold medal.
Instead of playing a pivotal role on a gold medal squad, Malkin felt marginalized by his Olympic coaches, lacking an opportunity to truly spark a medal run. He produced only a goal and two assists, and he didn't score a point in the final four games.
Uncustomary poor offensive production — he is a two-time NHL scoring champion and had scored five goals and 12 points in 11 previous Olympic games — did not sour Malkin in Sochi. Rather, his frustrations stemmed from factors that evoked memories of his near decade-long distrust of Russian hockey authority:
• Malkin, second among NHL players at 1.23 points per game, did not play regularly on the top power-play unit.
• Malkin believed coaches catered to players who were members of his country's Kontinental Hockey League. He sensed a point was being made at the expense of star Russians — specifically, he and Washington's Alex Ovechkin — who have chosen to remain in the NHL.
• Malkin felt the system was geared toward protecting the defense, which consisted mostly of KHL players, instead of playing to what he perceived the squad's strength: skilled forwards.
• Malkin sensed coaches were dismissive of players' feedback. He and Ovechkin, a winger on his line, repeatedly pushed to be split because of their limited experience playing together and their respective preferences to carry the puck. Malkin and Ovechkin felt playing on the same lines made the team an easier matchup for opponents.
Until a few weeks before the Olympics, Malkin thought he was set to play on a line with Toronto's Nikolai Kulemin, a fellow native of Magnitogorsk, Russia. They had played together for their hometown KHL club during the NHL lockout in 2012, with Malkin producing 65 points in 37 games.
(Kulemin produced 38 points in 36 games with Metallurg Magnitogorsk during the lockout. He did not score at the Olympics.)
In late December, Malkin learned he would play on a line with Ovechkin. Neither player favored that decision by Russian coaches, though not because of their on-again/off-again rivalry.
Ovechkin and Malkin, who have combined for three scoring titles and four MVPs since they were the first Russians to go 1-2 in the NHL Entry Draft (2004), privately feared their styles would not mesh fast enough in a short tournament such as the Olympics.
Malkin and Ovechkin also confided to associates' fears that Russia's NHL and KHL Olympians would not always be on the same page. Both players had hoped defenseman Sergei Gonchar, a respected veteran of four previous Olympics with NHL players, would make the squad to help captain Pavel Datsyuk bring players from hockey's two most prominent leagues together.
Gonchar, now playing for Dallas, was not chosen by the Russian Federation — a decision that equally frustrated and confounded Ovechkin and Malkin.
Tired of public relations demands that dated to last summer, Malkin struck Penguins teammates as more resigned than joyous in the final weeks leading up to Sochi. Once at the Games, Malkin was scarcely heard from or seen by Penguins Olympians.
He tried early to soak up his third Olympics, but after the preliminary round Malkin told family and friends that a combination of pressure and dissatisfaction were weighing on him.
Though he played in Russia during the lockout and spends offseasons in Moscow, Malkin's history with his country is complicated when it comes to hockey.
He prefers the smaller rinks of North America and competition provided by the NHL. Also, his messy split with Metallurg prior to joining the Penguins eight years ago left scars that have not completely healed.
Malkin has said he can deeply love his country without being one of its faces of hockey for the Russian Federation.
“He was in a tough spot,” Neal said Tuesday. “He wanted to do so well for the people of his country, be the best he could. He wasn't really given that chance.
“It's a different situation for Geno here in Pittsburgh. For one, he's comfortable.”
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.
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