Mixed results, mixed emotions as Penguins return to NHL play
February 27, 2014 12:32 AM
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin returns to the ice in Pittsburgh for practice after playing for Russia in the Olympics.
By Shelly Anderson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The scene in the Penguins locker room after practice Wednesday was a little like something out of a Peanuts Halloween.
There were linemates Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz, all smiles on their first day back with their NHL team after helping Canada win the gold medal at the Sochi Olympics.
There was defenseman Brooks Orpik, who, along with Team USA, fell just short of earning a medal. He still talked about what a treat it was to be at the Olympics.
Then, there was center Evgeni Malkin, who looked like the kid who checked his pillow case and declared, "I got a rock."
Three times, Malkin has played in the Olympics. Three times, he has come away empty-handed. This time, the Winter Games were in his native Russia, and there were tremendous expectations for the team playing at home to win gold, or at least some color of medal.
"Of course, it's big pressure," Malkin said. "It's tough, sad. I didn't read the paper. I just focused on my game. I know everyone on the team played hard, 100 percent. It's tough to lose.
"It's not easy. It's always tough. I remember in Vancouver [in 2010] when we lost, and now it's worse."
The Penguins' six healthy Olympians (defenseman Paul Martin came home with a broken hand) practiced Wednesday and are expected to play tonight against Montreal at Consol Energy Center. The others are winger Jussi Jokinen and defenseman Olli Maatta, who won bronze with Finland.
Malkin seemed to get some relief from being back around his NHL teammates.
"I'm glad to come back and see these guys," he said. "They help me a lot. Just stay positive and focus on my game."
Malkin was all the more miserable because some of his equipment had not made it back from Sochi.
In addition, he was feeling the effects of a layoff since Russia lost in the qualifying round.
Game: Penguins vs. Montreal Canadiens, Consol Energy Center.
When: 7:08 p.m.
He said he was feeling "not good enough right now because the last six days I didn't skate. This was my first practice. ... Not 100 percent."
Although he remained in Russia until the end of the Games, Malkin did not immerse himself in other Olympic activities. He watched some events on TV "and enjoyed when Russian guys won," although he did attend figure skating a couple of times and hung out with his parents and some friends who had traveled to Sochi.
Orpik, who earned a silver medal in 2010, seemed to savor the Olympic experience more than Malkin did.
"There's a whole bigger part than just the hockey," Orpik said. "Obviously, the hockey didn't go our way, but I had a blast for two weeks, met a lot of people and probably enjoyed the whole experience a lot more than I did four years ago."
Kunitz, a first-time Olympian, and Crosby, who is two-for-two in golds at the Games, also soaked up some atmosphere.
"I tried to remind myself that it's a once-in-lifetime opportunity, to go meet some of the other athletes, take in the experience of being in Russia," he said.
Crosby took advantage of the fact that, other than the skiing and sliding events in the mountains, the venues were in a compact area.
"We went to speed skating, curling, a couple of the women's hockey games," Crosby said. "It was nice. Everything was close, so you could walk everywhere or ride a bike. It was nice to be able to see different things. In Vancouver, we met a lot of different athletes, but didn't get to see as many sports."
Crosby noticed that the speed skaters seemed to tote their long-bladed skates everywhere and, in talking to them, found out that they are incredibly particular about their skates and take care of them -- including sharpening them -- themselves. Crosby is particular about his skates, too, but is grateful that team equipment manager Dana Heinze handles the sharpening.
"It was a great experience," Crosby said of the Olympics. "Winning always makes it better."
Now the Olympians will stow their mixed bags of emotion and turn back toward NHL games.
"It will be good just to get a routine going again," Crosby said.
"You're going to have to manage and balance rest, but to play at that level for a couple of weeks and go through that, hopefully it's something that helps all of us who were there."
Kunitz, one goal shy of 200 in the NHL, is finding it to be a big transition.
"We've put that behind us now," he said of the Olympics. "It's just adjusting and getting back to our systems, relearning to be on the ice in certain areas where you can be responsible and where they're going to expect you to be and play. Playing some other system for two weeks, you forget about some of the things here, but, hopefully, running through the reps, we'll be ready for the game."
Malkin, although his Olympic experience was not what he wanted, was able to put things in perspective.
"I'm happy to play hockey every day," he said. "I'm a lucky guy to play in the NHL and play for my national team, too."
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