The number jumped off the stats sheet. Eight blocked shots for Penguins defenseman Paul Martin in Game 3 Sunday night against the Ottawa Senators. Eight!
By a guy who broke his left hand blocking a shot in March. That’s guts. Or it’s stupidity. No, wait, it’s neither of those things. It’s something much simpler. It’s playoff hockey.
“You don’t think about getting hurt this time of year,” Martin said Tuesday after the Penguins had a surprisingly high-energy, spirited practice at Scotiabank Place, looking nothing like a team that was down after its crushing, 2-1, double-overtime loss in Game 3.
“You just play your game. You’re in a zone. You know these games can come down to one little play. If you don’t get a piece of the puck or you don’t let [Tomas] Vokoun see it and you end up losing the game, you feel awful. You do everything you can to help the team win.”
Martin’s motivation is admirable. The Penguins are just hoping his luck holds up. It was one thing to lose him for 12 games after he blocked a shot by Winnipeg’s Tobias Enstrom March 28. It would be something much worse to lose him now. You think of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang as the players the Penguins least can afford to be hurt. Martin is right there with him. He led the team in ice time in Game 3 with 37:16.
He plays on the first penalty-killing unit and gets power-play time. His plus-8 in these playoffs is twice as good as anyone else on the Penguins. Letang is considered one of the NHL’s top offensive defensemen, but Martin has matched him with nine points in nine postseason matches, tied for second in the league behind Boston’s Zdeno Chara (10) through Monday. He scored the Penguins’ first goal on the power play in their 4-1 win against Ottawa in Game 1 and scored the tying goal late in their 4-3 overtime win in Game 6 against the New York Islanders in the first round.
“It just goes to show how important confidence is for a player,” said Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, Martin’s usual partner on the team’s shutdown defensive pairing.
Martin had none last season. He knew he was having a bad year. So did everyone who followed the Penguins, and they weren’t hesitant to let him know it. Martin might be close to being indispensable now, but he hardly was missed when he sat out the final three games of the horrible first-round playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers after taking a high hit from Brayden Schenn in Game 3.
“I don’t care how thick your skin is, no one likes to hear bad stuff about themselves,” Orpik said.
Martin acknowledged the criticism stung.
“You hear it and see it everywhere. I’m not a big guy on Twitter, but I knew it was out there. There’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t control it. All you can do is work hard and try to get back to being the player that got you in the league in the first place.”
Penguins general manager Ray Shero offered to trade Martin after last season, to give him a fresh start with a new team. Martin declined. “I knew right away that was the right decision,” he said. “I came to Pittsburgh to win. That’s why I picked Pittsburgh in the first place. I’d rather win in Pittsburgh than anywhere else.”
Martin put the work in. The NHL lockout helped him to get healthier and get in better shape, but he was resolved to become an elite player again. From game one, he was ready. He had two points in a 3-1 win in Philadelphia on opening day and helped to kill five power plays, two in the final 5 1/2 minutes. He hardly has slowed down.
“His hockey I.Q. is through the roof,” Penguins winger Matt Cooke said of Martin.
“He really is easy to play with,” Orpik said. “He’s so good positionally. In almost every situation, I can assume where he’ll be and 99.9 percent of the time he’s right there. I don’t have to peek to see where he is. I know where he is …
“He keeps the game simple. At times, that makes it easy for people to think he’s isn’t working hard. He’s just so efficient with his skating. He doesn’t waste a lot of energy.”
Martin’s strong play couldn’t come at a better time for the Penguins. He said they are “for sure, the best team I’ve played on.” Much has been made about future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla agreeing to a trade to Pittsburgh so he could win a Stanley Cup. Martin also is looking for his first Cup. This is the deepest he has been in the playoffs. He joined his previous team — the New Jersey Devils — for the 2003-04 season, the year after it won the Cup.
“Sure, all of us want to win for Iggie because he’s played so long and meant so much to the game,” Martin said. “But I want to win for me, too, especially after the way it’s been for me and the experiences I’ve had. I want it more than anything.”
This could end up being the best time of Martin’s career. He’s a lock to make the United State Olympic hockey team next year for the Sochi Games. A Cup and a Gold medal in the same calendar year? How cool would that be?
But first things first.
Game 4 tonight against the Senators.
You won’t have any trouble finding Martin, No. 7 in the Penguins jersey. He will be on the ice in every crucial situation.
What a difference a year makes.