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This month, Ryan Malone(notes) will play in his first Winter Olympic tournament, representing the United States of America. What better way to commemorate that achievement then by carving an image into one's flesh, right?

Malone, who has his share of tattoos, hasn't gotten his Team USA ink yet, but he's thinking about it. "On the USA jersey a tattoo of everything the United States stands for, so I'm going to get that. I'm just debating whether to go all the way down my arm to my wrist, or put it somewhere else on my body," he said in a phone interview Wednesday.

If he gets the official Olympic jersey design on his body, does he legally need a Nike swoosh tattooed somewhere near it?

"I don't know, maybe," he said with a laugh. "I hope not."

Malone is on pace for a career year this season, with 21 goals and 20 assists. He scored 26 goals in the previous season but expectations were inflated by his large contract, which he signed following four seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Now, both Malone and the Lightning are experiencing a considerable rebound from a lousy campaign in 2008-09.

We spoke with Malone about life with the Lightning, both on and off the ice; the comic genius of Zenon Konopka(notes); Steve Stamkos' Snuggie photo; his reaction to the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup; Lighting poker tournaments; and, most importantly, what his expectations are for the Olympic tournament in Vancouver. Enjoy.

Q. Last year at this point, you had 27 points. You have 41 this season. The first thing that comes to mind would be the first year playing with a large contract vs. the second year, but what other factors have contributed to your success in 2009-10?

MALONE: Every year in this league, you learn a lot more, find different scoring areas around the net. I'm trying to become a better hockey player throughout the year. Between last year and this year, I learned not to be on top of the goalie as much; especially if someone's taking a one-timer.

Stamkos usually has a bomb, so you try not to be right on top of the goalie when he shoots. The rebounds are usually further out, so you have a couple of areas to go.

We spoke with Mike Knuble earlier this season about "collecting garbage" in front of the net and scoring goals. Do you take offense to that term?

[Laughs] No, not at all. I always joke around that we might be banged up, have the bruises, but standing in front of the net is actually the "lazy man" spot. You're just standing there.

When Gary Roberts(notes) played with me in Pittsburgh, I don't think I saw him score a goal outside of the blue paint. He was the same way.

It's been a rough stretch for the franchise over the last two years. How far would a playoff berth go to reestablishing trust with the fans who are staying away from the arena these days?

I think that has to do a lot with the economy down here, more than people think. The year before I got traded, the big Brad Richards(notes) deal [to the Dallas Stars], Mike Smith(notes) came over and he said they were dead last in the league and they sold out the last six games of the home season. That's pretty impressive.

This season, we've only had one sellout, when Pittsburgh came to town. But I think for us to get in the playoffs -- with the Rays not playing right now -- the focus is on us and we're doing well.

It's tough, because there's not a lot of people originally from Tampa. The Lightning isn't their first team. I've met so many people from the Midwest and from Pittsburgh down here; it's kind of their second team.

How much off-ice stuff makes its way into the locker room, like the ownership disputes and the sale of the team and Vinny getting traded every five minutes?

I don't think any [of it does]. It's all really out of our control. We don't bother worrying about it because there's nothing we can do.

Two questions about your teammates. First, can you explain the cult of celebrity that's formed around Zenon Konopka this season?

I don't know ... he's a "beauty" I guess, in one word.

I think a lot of people here respect him. He leads the league in fighting majors, which is a tough job to have. He knows what it takes to win and how to be a team. We're just trying to make everyone believe in that team system. He's another leader in the locker room and everyone likes his personality down there.

He's a quirky dude, right?

The most funny thing, I guess, is that sometimes before games TSN or whatever TV network we're on that night will come in before warm-ups [to shoot] Vinny or Stamkos or Smitty the goalie. [Zenon] will go by with a jug of baby powder in his hand, and start putting up a smoke screen in front of Vinny. Then the camera guys will take a step back because they want to shoot Vinny, and he's still there throwing baby powder.

Then he dumps baby powder all over his face.

Also, we've seen officially released photos of Steven Stamkos(notes) wearing a Snuggie. Are Snuggies prevalent in the Lightning locker room, or was this a one-time thing?

No, it was a one-time thing. Someone ordered it for Halloween, but it came late. It was just in the room, and he put it on. So no, it's not something you'll find in the Lightning locker room.

After the Penguins won the Cup last season, who was the first ex-teammate you called or that contacted you? What kind of emotions were you feeling seeing them finally beat that Detroit team?

I just sent a mass text, the day after they won the Cup.

I was happy for them. Those guys, to come back, showed a lot of character. And you don't want to see your buddies lose twice in a row to those guys. You're hoping they can pull it out.

Do you miss that level of rivalry playing in Tampa? There's gotta be a hell of a difference playing in Tampa.

Yeah, there is. You try to get up for the big games down here; we have a big game in Atlanta [coming up]. But it's not the same, obviously. You miss the big rivalries. You miss it.

What's it like to share this Olympic experience with a guy like Brooks Orpik(notes)?

It'll be unbelievable. With Komisarek and Martin pulling out, you have maybe Whitney and Scuderi joining the team. (Ed. Note: Tm Gleason was chosen over Scuderi on Thursday.) I know a lot of guys on the team, and it's going to be great to share that experience. It's probably a once in a lifetime chance for myself, so I'm going to take it all in.

Read an interview with you talking about growing up and watching Olympics. For a player your age (30), is it less about the Miracle than it is about the first wave of NHL players in the Olympics, like Roenick?

Yeah, I think so. John LeClair(notes) was a big idol for me, and I was lucky enough to play with him in Pittsburgh. He taught me a lot. I know Billy Guerin a little bit, Doug Weight(notes) -- those are players I grew up watching. To now go over there and represent your country, you want to make everyone proud.

Looking at the roster, even at 30 you're Old Man Malone on Team USA.

[Laughs] I guess. Langenbrunner and Drury are there too. Obviously, I haven't won a Stanley Cup, but making it to the finals that year gave me a lot of experience and I learned what you have to do to be successful in those big games.

What part of the game do you think is the biggest concern for Team USA? For example, the major know on you guys is a lack of goal-scoring firepower like Canada and Russia.

With a couple of injuries on 'D', that might shake things up for our coaching staff. I think whoever we bring in will be able to play well against Russia or Canada or Sweden. Those guys play in the NHL, and we play against them every day.

Maybe Patrick Kane(notes) can skate around everybody, but a lot of the guys that we have are going to chip it in, maybe have a little give-and-go play and then go to the net.

We know it's a team concept coming in. You look at Canada, with all their all-stars, and we're going to have to play like a team to beat them. We all realize it going in. It's good to be the underdog, and hopefully raining on some parades.

Are you prepared to do what Ryan Kesler(notes) did for us and guarantee victory over Canada and a US medal?

No. It would be nice if I could.

What do you do on the road to relax?

We all play poker on the plane.

Nice. Who's the poker ace?

You know, it's Konopka. It's another reason he's pretty good.

We have good games. We have some pretty good players. Sometimes we even play poker in the room before games.

Do you just wait for Vinny to go all-in so you can make a dent in that contract?

It's scary because he doesn't go all-in that much, so it's a surprising thing when he does.

What do you watch movie-wise? Every player we've spoken to lately has praised "The Hangover."

That's your go-to when you can't find anything else on. I think I've seen it three or four times. I want to see that "Boondock Saints 2." Next road trip, that's what I'm watching.

Your adult beverage of choice, sir?

Budweiser and a shot Jagermeister.

Finally, what do you like most about hockey?


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