Kovacevic: Malkin, Russians ‘must win’ | TribLIVE.com
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The Associated Press
Russia's Evgeni Malkin takes a break during practice Monday, FEb. 10, 2014, during the Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Arena in Sochi, Russia.

SOCHI, Russia — Evgeni Malkin hasn’t muffed many moves with the Penguins in recent weeks, but this one fell flat on its face.

The Russian hockey team had just wrapped up its first practice at the Sochi Olympics on Monday, and No. 71 – sorry, he’s No. 11 here out of respect to veteran Ilya Kovalchuk – clearly had no interest in chatting with the media. So in spotting fellow NHL megastar Alexander Ovechkin holding court with the Russian contingent, he used Ovechkin as a screen and cut behind him.

And it would have worked, too, if Ovechkin hadn’t reached back to grab Malkin’s elbow — amazingly, without looking — and playfully forced him to stay put.

Not that it got far.

Translated from the Russian — and thanks to my Slovak buddy at the front of that media pack for this — Malkin described having “only a few hours to sleep” on the NHL-chartered flight from New York earlier in the day. He also noted that, even though Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz were on the flight, he sat among other Russians, no doubt stressing that stuff’s about to get real.

When someone asked about his broader ambitions in Sochi, he replied with a joke: “I come here to make money and sign a few contracts.”

With that mic-drop moment, Malkin was done. “Tomorrow, guys,” he told us North American types.

No big deal. He looked dead tired.

At the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder if he’s got any clue about what’s to come here.

Not yet, anyway.

He’ll know fully once he has a chance to watch video of Russia’s team gold in figure skating Sunday amid a pulsating appreciation for an old star in Evgeni Plushenko and a crazy-young star in 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia, all followed by Vladimir Putin standing with the rest of the crowd to roar approval.

(And the video will be seen by everyone, trust me. It’s inescapable.)

He’ll know fully once he hears how all domestic Aeroflot flights into Sochi are showing a new movie about Valeri Kharlamov, maybe the most celebrated star of the old Soviet hockey empire.

(Saw it myself, and it was riveting. Reminiscent of “Miracle.”)

He’ll know fully once he gets around town and sees that all Sochi billboards are temporarily covered with images of hockey players. Pavel Datsyuk is most prominent, but there’s plenty of Ovechkin, Kovalchuk and, yeah, Malkin.

(Wearing the Penguins’ ghastly blue sweater from the ill-fated Winter Classic. Ugh.)

It’s going to be all that and more. It’s going to be pressure of a magnitude the kid from Magnitogorsk has never known.

Jussi Jokinen, Malkin’s linemate when they get paid, might have put it best after the Finns’ practice: “For Geno, oh, man, I can’t even imagine. They have to win gold. They have to.”

Malkin’s new teammates seemed sharply aware, especially Kovalchuk, who last summer left the NHL after 11 seasons to play in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.

“It would mean a lot for our country if we win,” Kovalchuk said. “We’ve never won gold since the NHL started going to the Olympics. Our president brought the Games here to Russia for us to win. We have to win.”

Ovechkin also indirectly brought up Putin when he, too, was asked what it would mean: “The gold only cost $50 billion.”

The Sochi Games will cost $51 billion, to be precise, but the humor came across intact.

Here’s the thing: The Russians might not win. And I don’t think they will.

Remember, they were a chaotic mess in stumbling to sixth in Vancouver. Their forwards were crossed up, their defense was built on a bunch of guys named Zharkov from Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, and their goaltending was … well, it was Ilya Bryzgalov and Evgeni Nabokov, both long notorious for shrinking to the occasion.

This roster isn’t much better, if at all.

Again, they’re absolutely loaded up front. When you can load up a first line of Malkin, Ovechkin and Alexander Semin — as the Russians did in this first practice — that’s astounding all by itself. Yet there remains no clearer vision of their chemistry now than in Vancouver. And that absolutely includes Malkin and Ovechkin, who were oil and water there.

I asked Alexei Yashin, the former NHL standout who’s now GM of the Russian women’s team, if he’d play them together, and he didn’t hesitate: “Malkin and Ovechkin are your two best players, so why not? I’m not the coach, but I know I wouldn’t want to try to defend both on the same ice.”

The goaltending should be better with Sergei Bobrovsky, the NHL’s reigning Vezina winner, but the defense looks even worse.

As for the Zharkovs, this time there are a ridiculous nine, although Kovalchuk is one. That’s been a big reason the Russians fail in these events. They prioritize placating their KHL teams over assembling the strongest roster.

So what that will mean, naturally, is even more pressure on Malkin and the scorers.

Look out, Slovenia’s goaltender, whoever you are. They’re up first Thursday, then the United States on Saturday.

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