Of the 11 representatives the Pittsburgh Penguins sent to the Sochi Olympics, four are coming home with medals. Captain Sidney Crosby and linemate Chris Kunitz both scored in Canada’s 3-0 win over Sweden to claim gold, and Jussi Jokinen and 19-year-old phenom Olli Maatta did the same in Finland’s 5-0 thrashing of the U.S. to win bronze.
“Seeing the smiles on their faces was pretty special and, being Canadian and knowing how much it means to represent your company, [with] all the fans in Canada watching, it would’ve been something special,” said Penguins forward James Neal, who was part of Team Canada’s Olympic camp last summer and on the shortlist to replace injured Steven Stamkos at the Olympics.
“They did a good job and they came up big at the biggest time in the tournament. Good for them. Those guys made a whole country proud.”
“Dominating performance by the Canadians,” said Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen, a Minnesotan who was rooting for Team USA. “They didn’t give up anything. [Goaltender Carey] Price was solid; their defensemen were really, really good; and you saw the depth that they had. A good showing for them, and the Pittsburgh Penguins were represented pretty well, too.”
Of the Finns, Neal said, “Jussi and Olli were unbelievable. I watched them a little bit throughout and they were great all tournament. It’s going to be great for us. They’re going to come back with a lot of confidence.”
For U.S. and Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma and his staff, however, they and defensemen Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin are coming home empty-handed, carrying the disappointment of being the tournament’s best team in their first four games – going 4-0 and leading all teams with 20 goals – then collapsing, being shut out twice in a 24-hour period to finish off the medal stand.
After losing a 1-0 heartbreaker to Canada to miss out on the gold-medal game, Team USA came out flat and, in the words of several of its players, “passive” against the Finns, as they moved from an aggressive forechecking game to a 1-2-2 defensive style.
“It’s obviously tough. They probably put so much into the Canadian-U.S. game that they got a little ahead of themselves,” Neal said. “You put so much emphasis on trying to win gold, and they played so quick right after that game. It was probably such a letdown for them and tough to get back going again. Finland had a day [off] and they were ready to go; they came out flying.
“Hopefully coach and Brooksie can get right back where they left off. They’re huge parts of our team, and we’re excited to get going again.”
Martin, meanwhile, is returning with a cast after suffering a hand injury in Team USA’s win over the Czech Republic in the elimination round. He missed the last two games of the tournament – significantly impacting the team’s ability to play its puck-possession style – and could miss a month or more for the Penguins. Martin had just returned January 20 from a fractured tibia that sidelined him for nearly two months.
“That’s going to be tough on our team,” Neal said. “We’ve lost Paulie enough this year to injuries; the guy can’t catch a break and he’s had some bad luck. He’s such a huge part of our team; when he’s playing, he’s one of the best back there. Hopefully we can get him back as soon as possible.”
“Losing Paulie’s a big loss,” Niskanen said. “He was playing well over in Sochi, [and] he was just getting his game back right before he left, so that’s an unlucky break for him and our team. But, for myself and the other [defensemen], it’s kind of a common theme this season – increased role, increased minutes. That’s something that we’re pretty used to, unfortunately, right now.”
Martin joins fellow top-four defenseman Kris Letang on the shelf. After missing a significant portion of the season with a variety of ailments, the 26-year-old Letang is now not expected to return this year after suffering a stroke, likely due to a hole in his heart.
“It’s unusual to have that many regulars out all at once, several times through the year now,” Niskanen said. “Our depth has been tested, lots of different guys have played and we’ve done pretty well, too, so that’s a good sign that we have a number of people who can step in and be productive players.
“That’s a good thing for our organization and an exciting opportunity for the young players, too. That’s kind of what you need to get a chance, especially in a good organization.”
Not in the medal-round conversation at all was Penguins star Evgeni Malkin, whose Team Russia was knocked out by the Finns in the first elimination game. The loss was a devastating one for the Russians, who hoped to medal in their home Olympics.
“[The U.S. and Russia] probably thought their teams could potentially get a medal, possibly even gold, so that’s disappointing, I’m sure,” Niskanen said. “Geno, especially, had a lot of pressure playing in his home country.
“But when they get back, they’re grown men and I think they’re going to see that there’s another big prize in the not-too-distant future. They’ll be focused on that and they’ll be hungry to have success here in Pittsburgh.”