SOCHI, Russia — Back in Pittsburgh, the Penguins have a nickname for Evgeni Malkin when he’s in a bad mood.
“The Bully,” Team USA defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “That’s what we call him. He doesn’t like it, but that’s what we call him.”
It’s only an assumption, but Malkin, playing against the Americans today in front of his entire hockey-obsessed country, is probably not going to feel too friendly.
Nobody in this field of 12 teams could have as much information on how to play against Malkin as Team USA. Dan Bylsma, the American head coach, has coached him for five years. Ray Shero, Team USA’s acting general manager, has watched Malkin up close since he debuted with the Penguins in 2006. Then there’s defensemen Paul Martin and Orpik, whom Bylsma has paired up for today’s game after having them separated Thursday in the 7-1 win against Slovakia.
“We’ve had experience with 44 and 7, Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin, against the opponents we’re going against,” Bylsma said. “Malkin, too. They see him in practice.”
Orpik and Martin can only hope Malkin isn’t in bully mode.
“When he is in that kind of mood, it’s good for us in Pittsburgh,” Orpik said. “You know how he is. When he plays on the perimeter, he’s not as effective. When he tries to go around people, he’s not as effective. But when he tries to go through people and kind of bully his way in, that’s when he can be super-effective. Everyone sees the talent he is, but I don’t think people understand how big and strong he is.”
Orpik is making his second Olympic appearance, having helped the U.S. to a silver medal in 2010 in Vancouver. On Thursday, Martin played in his first Olympic game, after being on the taxi squad for the 2006 Turin Games and missing the Vancouver Games because of a freak injury.
The game against Slovakia, which Martin started on defense with Ryan Suter, was many years in the making.
“As soon as we got out there and they announced that I was starting with Suter, I was circling around the net saying, ‘I’m going to be out on the ice when the puck drops for my first Olympic game,’ ” Martin said. “It was pretty special.”
Martin’s parents and sister are here, along with two aunts and two uncles on his mother’s side. When he saw his family after the game, his mother couldn’t control her emotions.
“She was pretty choked up and just excited for that opportunity for me to finally make it happen,” Martin said. “She knows how much it hurt not being able to play in the last Olympics and to finally make that dream come true in this one, they were definitely excited.”
Orpik found it fitting that Martin got the start the first game, given how long he waited. They are friends and a strong defensive pairing in Pittsburgh, and they’ll have their hands full today with Russian forwards Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk, among others.
“I think you always look forward to playing against the best guys and challenging yourself,” Orpik said. “We have the luxury of doing that every day in practice, which I think prepares guys in Pittsburgh really well for that. Going against guys like Geno and [Sidney Crosby], when you go against guys like Ovechkin or Datsyuk, it’s not totally different. In terms of that level of talent, you’re accustomed to it.”
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BradyMcCollough.