Pens fans will be able to watch quite a few familiar faces at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia this year.
Seven members of the Pittsburgh Penguins were selected by their respective nations to represent their countries at the upcoming games, the second highest amount of any team in the league, behind only the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues, who have ten, and the Red Wings, who have nine.
A brief breakdown of all seven, including what it could mean for the rest of Pittsburgh’s season, as well as a few snubs.
Finland: Jussi Jokinen and Olli Maata
Maata may be the most intriguing story of all going into these games. A player many thought would be sent back down to London of the OHL after training camp ended, Maata played his way onto a full time spot as a second pairing defenseman for the Pens. Playing with poise well beyond his years, the 19 year-old Finn has impressed both his teammates as well as his opponents with his sublime skating and excellent defensive awareness, so much so that it has also earned him spot on team Finland’s Olympic roster. The 19 year-old Maata is just a baby compared to the grizzled veterans that make up much of the Finnish roster, however I wouldn’t be surprised to see him light it up in Sochi. The bigger ice is perfectly suited to his style, and the high pressure nature of the games will give him some valuable experience to fall back on come playoff time.
As far as the Penguins are concerned, I would have to think that fear of a late-season flameout, similar to the one Kris Letang experienced at the end of the 2008 Cup Final, is looming in the back of the minds of Pittsburgh brass. When it’s all said and done, Maata will have played about 90 games total before the playoffs begin, an immense load for someone so young, however given the way Maata has carried himself this year alone, I wouldn’t be surprised if he finishes the season without missing a beat. Either way, it is clear that he is an exceptional two-way talent, and one that is richly deserving of his spot.
Another no-brainer, Geno is the hottest player in the world right now, and one of the handful
of elite Russian talents still left in the NHL. He was a member of the 2010 team that lost in the quarterfinals to Canada 4-1, Malkin will most certainly be seeing top-line duties with Alexander Ovechkin come February.
Given his elite talent, the pressure on Malkin will be immense this year, especially since Russia is coming off of one of it’s most disappointing performances in 2010. Malkin thrives under pressure, and I can’t imagine as scenario where he doesn’t remain hot these next few months leading up to Sochi, which is certainly a good thing for the Penguins.
Chris Kunitz has been the most polarizing figure in Canadian hockey the last six weeks. For months, people debated whether or not Kunitz, who plays on a line with Crosby in Pittsburgh, deserved a spot on the Canadian roster just because he has chemistry with Crosby. While he is 5th in NHL scoring, every single one of his points has come with Crosby on the ice, and his inclusion means elite talents like Claude Giroux and Martin St. Louis being left off.
I think Kunitz may come out and surprise a lot of people, if for no other reason other than to prove all the naysayers wrong. He’ll most certainly be slotted on the top line with Sid, however he also has a history playing with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf in Anaheim, and his physical, go-to-the-corners style of play would make him an ideal checking winger on the third or fourth line, even with a larger ice surface. If it works out, he’ll look like a hero, and if he struggles he’ll be turned into a pariah, either way, the pressure is certainly on Kunitz to show everyone what he’s made of. Kunitz’s inclusion also showed just how much pull Crosby has with hockey Canada, which makes you wonder who much he influenced other roster decisions.
Martin has been a lock basically since day one, however when it was revealed that teammate Brooks Orpik would be included over Phoenix blueliner Keith Yandle, many were left scratching their heads. A solid one-way defenseman, Orpik’s inclusion shows that Team Canada was not alone in using team chemistry to determine it’s roster. At 33, Orpik is not the most fleet of foot blueliner the U.S. could have chosen, and quite honestly I don’t know if I would have either. Including him over Yandle on a large ice surface is a bit mind-boggeling, especially when you consider how much emphasis U.S. coach Dan Bylsma has put on team speed when picking his squad.
Snubs: James Neal and Marc-Andre Fleury
Fleury’s inclusion on this roster was more wishful thinking than anything else. One of the hottest goaltenders in the league right now, Fleury’s name was floated around by some in the media as a possible third option in net, however his collapses in the playoffs the lat two years as well as the World Junior Championship in 2003 were most certainly huge reasons for his exclusion. Either way, it really wouldn’t have mattered. Having Fleury as your third goalie is as about as important as having Craig Adams as your tenth center. The chances of him playing were minuscule to begin with.
Neal on the other hand is a different story. Seeing as how he’s been a bubble player throughout the whole process, I cant’s say I’m surprised to see him left off, but the fact that he is still boggles my mind. Neal is a legitimate sniper and elite goal scorer who ranks near the top of the league in goals and points per game, as well as shooting percentage and power-play efficiency. Guy’s like Rick Nash and Jeff Carter’s inclusion over Neal is a joke, and just another example of Canada picking a set of hockey cards over legitimate elite level players.