The buzzer had barely sounded on Team Russia’s quarterfinal loss last Wednesday before the speculation began: How will Evgeni Malkin respond to his latest Olympic disappointment?
For various reasons, the Pittsburgh Penguins star center and two-time NHL scoring champion was held pointless over his last three games in Sochi, including the 3-1 loss to Finland in the elimination round that sent the Russians home without a medal. Malkin wasn’t alone in his ill-timed slump, as Capitals sniper Alex Ovechkin matched him zero for zero after they combined for five points in their Olympic opener against Slovenia.
If the unsatisfactory result wasn’t enough, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Rob Rossi reported Tuesday that Malkin returned to Pittsburgh in a particularly sour mood because of what he felt was gross mismanagement on the part of Team Russia. Among other things, Malkin was rankled by the coaches’ perceived bias against NHL players and his lack of playing time on the power play.
In that same report, Rossi reveals that Malkin has always felt as an outsider in Russia’s hockey federation and that he prefers the smaller rinks and relative privacy he finds in the United States.
James Neal, Malkin’s oft-linemate on the Penguins, said the 2012 NHL MVP was “angry” at Tuesday’s team practice, but the fact remains that No. 71 is back in a comfortable environment as Pittsburgh prepares for the final 24 games of the regular season.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Malkin went through a similar ordeal four years ago following Russia’s embarrassing Olympic ouster at the hands of Team Canada. Although his production was better in Vancouver (six points in four games vs. three in five this year), Malkin still returned to the Penguins in 2010 trying to recover from a letdown.
Malkin’s numbers weren’t bad after the 2010 Olympic break, as he put up 12 points (7g, 5a) in the final 12 regular-season games he played in, although those stats were boosted by a four-point night against the Islanders to close the schedule. Nevertheless, Malkin followed that up with 11 points (5g, 6a) in 13 playoff matches, a pretty fair rate in a high-stakes atmosphere.
Much like 2009-10, when he played 67 of 82 games, Malkin has missed more than his share of action this season due to injury, but he appears to be at his healthiest after sitting out 11 games earlier. Although the Olympics are certainly taxing, Malkin’s fitness at this stage of the year should partially counteract that effect.
Pending any trades made by general manager Ray Shero over the next week, the Penguins are going to need Malkin at his best to remain one of the NHL’s most dangerous offensive teams.
Malkin often appears to be driven by emotion, for better or worse. But at age 27, he has reached a more mature stage in his career, so I would wager he’ll find a way to convert the frustration of Sochi into motivation to excel through the spring.