Penguins veteran Kunitz, rookie Maatta to go to Sochi

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- One is a 34-year-old winger, undrafted but winner of two Stanley Cups and mildly maligned in some corners for perhaps benefiting greatly from his association with the biggest name in hockey.

The other is a 19-year-old rookie with a pedigree but not an overstuffed resume and who surprised many by grabbing a full-time NHL job in his first pro season.

Those two -- veteran left winger Chris Kunitz and teen defenseman Olli Maatta -- have different backgrounds but something special in common.

They will make their first Olympic appearances next month at the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and are among the seven Penguins selected for the Games.

Kunitz and center Sidney Crosby will play for Team Canada. Maatta and winger Jussi Jokinen (second Olympics) were picked to represent Finland. Center Evgeni Malkin will play for host Russia, his third time at the Games and one of his country's cornerstones. Those five were named Tuesday, the deadline for countries to submit their 25-man rosters.

Defensemen Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin were named to Team USA last week.

Speculation about whether Canada would offer Kunitz his first chance to play in the Olympics heightened recently, and he wasn't immune to pondering the possibility.

"I think more than I originally thought I would," Kunitz said. "I tried to keep it on the back burner ... but the closer it got to the deadline, and, after the U.S. team announced their [roster], you definitely spent hours thinking about it."

Kunitz went into the game Tuesday night against the Vancouver Canucks ranked sixth in NHL scoring with 47 points in 44 games and was tied with Crosby for the team lead with 23 goals. His 11 power-play goals ranked second in the league.

Still, there was mumbling -- more than mumbling, really -- that Kunitz's path to the Olympic roster was made possible by the fact that he is a linemate of Crosby, who was a lock for the Olympic team and considered in most quarters the world's best hockey player.

Crosby -- who led the league in scoring before games Tuesday with 63 points in 44 games and scored the gold-medal-clinching overtime goal for Canada in 2010 -- disputes the popular Kunitz-on-the-coattails theory.

"He's done a lot of things to earn the right to play on the team," Crosby said.

Team Canada general manager Steve Yzerman made it clear that playing well alongside Crosby was an asset and just one of many for Kunitz.

"He's a hard-nosed player. He's a skilled player," Yzerman said. "Yes, he plays with Sidney Crosby, and he's been a great contributor not only to that line, but to his team, whether it be five-on-five or on the power play.

"The question that I think a lot of people have asked is, is Chris Kunitz being helped by Sidney Crosby? They help each other. He's a tremendous player on his own."

Maatta, a 2012 first-round draft pick who has three goals, 13 points and averages 17 minutes, 38 seconds of ice time, hasn't been accused of getting a free ride based on playing with anyone, but he is quick to admit that the Penguins' faith in him contributed to his Olympic inclusion.

"I have to really thank the Penguins organization for giving me a shot to play here," said Maatta, who grew up admiring Olympic hockey even more than the NHL version.

"It's probably because we didn't get as much NHL on TV, so the Olympics were the biggest thing," he said.

They are a big deal in Canada, too, as evidenced by the throngs of reporters at Rogers Arena Tuesday morning chasing the Olympics angle -- particularly wanting to speak to Crosby, who scored that golden goal in 2010 at the same Vancouver arena where the Penguins played Tuesday night.

Two Penguins, though, were left on the outside looking in.

The team had been making a strong vocal push for Team Canada to invite right winger James Neal, who since the start of 2011-12 is averaging more than a goal every other game, 77 in 144 games.

"It's nice to hear good things, especially from your teammates," Neal said.

"You've got to keep your head up and keep a smile on your face. It's tough.

"They're all tough decisions. It's an unbelievable team with a lot of unbelievable players, a lot of well-deserving guys that made the club. I couldn't be happier for Sid and [Kunitz]. Two well-deserving guys."

Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was left off of the Team Canada roster despite leading the NHL with 24 wins before facing Vancouver. He was Canada's No. 3 goalie in 2010, but did not appear in a game.

Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.


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