TAMPA — Lightning left wing Ryan Malone acknowledged that given his age, 30, this year would be his "big shot" to make the U.S. Olympic team.
Turns out, Malone has gotten that dream opportunity. He was named to the 23-man roster Friday and will play in the Olympics in Vancouver. Malone said it hadn't sunk in, but you couldn't wipe the smile off the Pittsburgh native's face.
"I think it'll be a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Malone said. "The level of hockey obviously I'm proud to be a part of, and I think everyone's game will kind of be raised from playing over there."
Malone, who earned his first Olympic berth, has raised the level of his game this season, ranking second on the team in goals (19) and leading the NHL in winners (seven). Coach Rick Tocchet said he's seen a different Malone this season, one who is more consistent game to game and is growing into a bigger leadership role.
And Tocchet believes Malone's size (6 feet 4, 224 pounds) and gritty style of play in front of and around the net will be a great asset for the Americans, especially considering the games will be played on the smaller North American ice surface.
"He's going to be huge for just the stuff that they're looking for in those games," Tocchet said. "When you're talking about Olympic-style games, it's usually every game is a playoff game, and a lot of pucks get to the net, a lot of pucks get behind the net, a lot of pucks get on the wall, and that's kind of Ryan's forte. And you need players like that."
Malone — 21/2 months old when the Americans pulled off their "miracle" in the 1980 Olympics behind coach Herb Brooks, upsetting the Russians and eventually winning the gold medal — appreciates the country's Olympic history. He has played in the Herb Brooks hockey camps in Minnesota and remembers watching the likes of Mike Modano and Jeremy Roenick compete internationally.
But, Malone said, "I never thought I'd ever be on an Olympic team."
Malone talked about how when he left Pittsburgh to begin his college (St. Cloud, Minn., State) and pro careers, he wasn't even the best "local kid" around, so it was a big deal when the Penguins drafted him in 1999 and he made his NHL debut with them in 2003.
And though Malone has been a part of playoff teams and been to the Stanley Cup final (with Pittsburgh in 2008), he has always had teammates (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Vinny Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis, Steven Stamkos) who have garnered more attention.
But now Malone has an individual honor of his own, and his teammates say it's well-deserved.
"He's a rare combination of size and talent," Stamkos said. "He's smooth in the clutch. … He's a pretty consistent player. You know what he's going to bring to the table every night."
Said Lecavalier: "He's a great leader; he'll do anything for his teammates. If you have 20 guys like him, that's a pretty good team. We're lucky to have him."
Malone said though the Olympics will have plenty of talented teams, such as Canada, Sweden and the Czechs, he likes the Americans' underdog role and has high hopes for the United States, which is celebrating the 30-year anniversary of their shocking gold medal in Lake Placid.
"Obviously, you have a lot of pride and are excited," Malone said. "And hopefully we can go there and play, and hopefully grab something around your neck, that's for sure."
U.S. Olympic team
Brian RafalskiRed Wings
Brooks Orpik Penguins
Mike KomisarekMaple Leafs
Ryan Miller Sabres