Underrated Paul Martin Quietly Leading Penguins

Chris Kunitz and Sidney Crosby developing chemistry (Flickr/Dan4th)

PITTSBURGH – The New Jersey Devils are off to a disappointing 8-17-2 start to the season and everyone seems to have an opinion on how to fix it.  Finding a way to get defenseman Paul Martin back on the roster might be a good first move, at least if they want to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins.

For the past two seasons, Martin’s team has won every match-up between the Atlantic Division rivals.  The Devils pulled off a clean six-game regular season sweep of Pittsburgh last year, but the Penguins have reversed that trend with two wins in the new campaign including a 2-1 victory on Monday night.

“Each team is different,” winger Chris Kunitz said.  “But when a team holds you to no wins last year, it’s a tough pill to swallow.  We came out and we tried to get a jump like we have in the previous games.  Tonight we didn’t get that start, but we did find a way to win though and that’s all that matters for us.”

Coach Dan Bylsma acknowledged that while there are new faces in each locker room, the style of play the Penguins have come to expect from the Devils hasn’t changed a bit.  “The games really haven’t changed this year,” Bylsma said.  “They’re still tight, there’s still not a lot of room in the middle of the ice, but one thing we’re doing a good job of is keeping our focus and our mentality.”

Staying focused isn’t easy when prime scoring chances are few and far between.  Sidney Crosby said the team knew what to expect coming into the game and wanted to take advantage of any openings they got.  “They played us well,” he said.  “Tonight it seemed like a ton of neutral-zone [trapping] and not a ton of opportunities and that’s why there’s so much importance on making the ones you get count.”

After the Devils jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first period, Kunitz made his first shot of the game count on a great cross-ice pass from Crosby:

“I saw [Kunitz] kind of delay a bit,” Crosby said.  “He didn’t slow down a ton, but enough to create a little separation between him and the defenseman he was in front of.  I just tried to put it into space so he could step into it and he ripped it.  That was a great shot and a big goal to get one back there.”

The assist stretched Crosby’s point-streak to 16 games, the second longest of his career and just three games shy of his run in 2007.  Kunitz said that with Crosby dominating the NHL like he’s been for the last five weeks, it opens up a lot of time and space for he and linemate Pascal Dupuis to make plays.

“On that goal, [Dupuis] made a pass over to Sid that hit him in the skates, but Sid made an unbelievable play in stride to kick it up to his stick.  He’s on such a tear right now that a lot of guys overplay him and it leaves a lot of ice open for us.”

Crosby notched another game-winning goal in the second period when he banged a shot past Devils goalie Johan Hedberg and now leads the NHL with 48 points.

Paul Martin Flying Under the Radar

Martin scored two goals over the weekend against Columbus, but he’s been quietly finding a comfort zone with his new team and contributing in ways that don’t often show up on the scoresheet.  Bylsma said it’s the way he excels in so many aspects of the game that makes him a special player:

Paul’s game is not a high-energy game.  You can’t expect him to go out and crash and bang, but the subtlety with which he plays and goes back for pucks.  The passes, look-offs, powerplay, neutral zone transition…it’s all a big part of his game and a lot of that goes somewhat unnoticed.  When you start to see it over and over again, you start to realize how good he really is back there.  He’s one of the most underrated players I’ve seen.

– Coach Dan Bylsma

It’s not a coincidence that the early-season powerplay struggles have eased since Martin took over Alex Goligoski‘s spot on the top unit. Over the past nine games, the Penguins powerplay is clicking at over 31-percent and has risen to 12th in the NHL (17.1-percent).

If former powerplay wizard Sergei Gonchar was the ‘triggerman’, Paul Martin is the ‘distributor’. He doesn’t shoot often, but his vision and patience bringing the puck up the ice is refreshing and allows the Penguins to set up effectively in the offensive zone – a problem in recent years.

Martin will never win a Norris Trophy. He’ll probably continue to get criticism from fans wondering why GM Ray Shero is paying $5m annually to a player that doesn’t stand out like Boston’s Zdeno Chara or Chris Pronger of the Flyers. But focus on Martin for an entire game and you’ll see one of the most patient and intelligent defensemen in the NHL.

News and Notes:

~ Early in the season, Kris Letang was battling through an apparent hand injury that seems to be fully healed.  He attempted 13 shots against the Devils.

~ Jesse Marshall at Faceoff Factor reminded me of a time prior to this season when Sidney Crosby couldn’t wake up in the morning without shutdown defenseman Anton Volchenkov draped all over him.  Volchenkov and former-teammate Chris Phillips created the dominant defensive pair that gave the Penguins fits for years in Ottawa.

On Monday Volchenkov saw only two of his 22 shifts against Crosby while Sid skated circles around the Devils Colin White.  The Ilya Kovalchuk $100m contract gets all the attention in New Jersey, but was an injury-prone Volchenkov really worth $25.5m if the Devils don’t feel comfortable matching him against Crosby anymore?

~ Owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle gave Bill Guerin and his family a trip to Hawaii as part of a retirement ceremony before Monday’s game.  Guerin only played 130 games in a Penguins uniform, but he said the experience with Pittsburgh was one of the most positive moments of his life.  It begs the question, what would Sergei Gonchar have received had he decided to retire with the team instead of heading to Ottawa in the offseason?


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