THREE PENGUINS LOOKING FORWARD TO OLYMPIC COMPETITION
And, he can’t wait to skate alongside his Russian countrymen – especially Evgeni Malkin.
“Playing with your countrymen, playing for your country is a big honor,” Gonchar said. “I have been there twice already and it’s a great experience. The atmosphere is different; there is so much excitement because you have a chance to see all these fans cheering for their country. It’s a great feeling.”
The Russians represent two of the three Pittsburgh Penguins selected to participate in the Torino Games. Penguins winger Tomas Surovy will compete for Slovakia. All three will be on the ice Wednesday as Russia and Slovakia open the Olympic tournament against each other at 2 p.m.
The NHL shuts down for a little more than two weeks to allow its players to compete in the Olympic games for the third time since professionals were allowed to compete in the 1998 Nagano Games. Players not competing in the Olympics are allowed to return to team practices on Feb. 22.
Wednesday’s game will mark the first time Malkin and Gonchar have skated together since last season when Gonchar joined Malkin on Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Russian Super League during the NHL work stoppage.
Gonchar, an 11-year NHL veteran, is in his first campaign with the Penguins, while the 19-year-old Malkin, Pittsburgh’s 2004 second-overall pick, has yet to play in the NHL. He remains in his homeland and is dominating the Russian Super League with Magnitogorsk.
“He is the kind of guy who is going to be at the top level with the way he plays. Since I played with him last year, it’s not a surprise for me to see the way he’s playing,” Gonchar said. “The guy has all the skills and potential. I kind of expected it from him and it’s good to see he’s doing well.”
A lack of a transfer agreement between the Russian Hockey Federation and the NHL kept Malkin in Russia. However, there is a probability he will be in a Penguins uniform in the fall.
“I am sure we’re going to talk about Pittsburgh and all that stuff [at the Olympics],” Gonchar said. “I am sure it’s going to be interesting for both of us. Hopefully, next year he will join us and be here.”
Alexander Ovechkin, who went first overall to Washington in 2004, is leading the NHL’s rookies in scoring. He will play for Russia at Torino and hopes to see Malkin in the NHL next season.
“I spoke to him when he was in Vancouver [for the World Junior Championships] and I said, ‘Evgeni you must come here next year. It’s a different world and you will see; you will feel it when you come here,’” Ovechkin said. “I think he will come here. He is a great player and really knows the game. I am looking forward to the moment when we can play together in the Olympics.”
Once Malkin comes to Pittsburgh, Ovechkin sees nothing but greatness ahead for his comrade.
“When he comes to the league, I think he will be the best rookie,” he said.
The Olympic tournament will give Malkin a taste of what he can expect in the NHL.
“Obviously, for any athlete to be at an Olympic Games, it’s a great experience,” Gonchar said. “For him, I am sure it’s going to be great, too, because he has a chance to play against NHL players and with NHL players even though he’s not in the NHL yet. So, I am sure it’s going to be great for him and I am sure he’s excited about it.”
Malkin and Ovechkin are the latest talented forwards Russia has churned out in recent years. They follow a long line of scoring machines on Russia’s Olympic roster like Ilya Kovalchuk, former Penguin Alexei Kovalev, Pavel Datsyuk and Alexei Yashin – among a multitude of others.
“Russia has been known for a lot of skilled forwards in the past and that’s true now and will be in the future, too,” said Gonchar, a defenseman. “We’re always dangerous offensively. Hopefully, we can put in a decent defensive effort out there and, if we can score a few goals, we can do some damage out there.”
Russia captured the bronze medal at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. The team has a chance to medal again this year despite losing goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin to a knee sprain.
“Unfortunately, a couple guys got injured. That’s life. I wish they could be with us, but you have to move on,” Gonchar said. “Canada is a favorite. The Czech Republic is going to be right there because of the way they have been playing in the World Championships. If you look at their leader, [Jaromir] Jagr is playing great and [Dominik] Hasek is playing pretty well in net. Those are two teams who are going into the Olympics with a lot of expectations.
“If you look at it, there are no weak teams. If you remember the last Olympics, Belarus beat Sweden,” he continued. “So, every game is going to be tight. One goal might change the result and that’s why you have to go out there and play pretty much as hard as you can every second you’re on the ice and hope for the best.”
Likewise, Ovechkin remains upbeat about Russia’s chances for a medal.
“Russia has a very good team. I think they are going to have good chance,” he said. “Everybody has a good team, though. Guys need to help each other and play hard.”
Gonchar hopes Russia can build team chemistry quickly in a short amount of time. The tournament lasts just 11 days from its start on Feb. 15 to the gold-medal game on Feb. 26.
“Obviously, it’s not easy, but we are all in the same boat. All the rest of the teams are in the same condition,” Gonchar said. “Nobody is complaining about it. It makes it tough for you, but at the same time it makes it exciting because you’re getting together and you have to deliver right away. It’s a challenge and I am looking forward to it.”