by: Josh Yohe, TribLIVE Updated:
NEW YORK - Defenseman Paul Martin continued his transcendent spring Monday in a Game 3 victory at Madison Square Garden.
Long before he took the playoffs by storm, Martin's career was revived in a far quieter setting.
Following the 2011-12 season, Martin was disgusted with his performance through two seasons of a five-year, $25 million contract. That summer, he told the Tribune-Review that, “If you had told me this is where my game would be, I wouldn't have believed it.”
The Penguins couldn't believe it, either, so they did something about it.
Assistant coach Todd Reirden traveled to Minnesota, Martin's home state. Reirden doesn't divulge all of the details from that visit, but it triggered something in Martin that has turned him from a struggling defenseman to a player who thrived in the Olympics and is playing at an even higher level now.
“It was great for Paul and I to spend some time together that summer and to come up with a different plan,” Reirden said. “We came up with a plan for him.”
Martin decided to dedicate himself to physical conditioning. He could play 25 minutes per game and do so effortlessly, but the Penguins wanted him to get stronger. And he did, physically and mentally.
“His overall commitment in all areas of the game,” Reirden said, “managed to go to another level.”
Quiet by nature, Martin now is speaking up when necessary. Defenseman Matt Niskanen, a fellow Minnesota native, has witnessed a difference.
“He's our leader on the blue line right now,” Niskanen said. “Normally Brooks (Orpik) is our vocal leader. But right now, it really is Paul. He's the guy.”
Reirden suggested that Martin's improved physical strength has greatly enhanced his work.
Smooth skating and calmness with the puck come naturally to Martin. Passion, at least on the exterior, isn't something that Martin easily produces.
But now, he practically oozes it.
“He's just completely different than he was two years ago,” Reirden said. “And it's not always what people notice. He's committed to being in the gym now. He's always had that uncanny ability to make the game look easy. With the added strength and a better conditioning level now, he wins more puck battles. He's winning 50/50 battles now, which gives him the puck more often. And he's great with the puck.
“I like this version of Paul much more than the one two years ago.”
Martin does, too. He admits this might be the best hockey of his career.
“It's right up there,” he said. “The playoffs are a totally different game. I feel pretty good.”
Martin's postseason work has been nearly flawless. Among NHL defensemen, only Montreal's P.K. Subban and Chicago's Brent Seabrook have produced more than Martin's eight points. Martin's plus-nine rating is the highest of any player in the playoffs. He is playing 27:15 per playoff game, most on the Penguins.
Martin also has become half of arguably the NHL's finest current pairing. Because of defenseman Brooks Orpik's injury, the Penguins placed Martin beside defenseman Kris Letang. In the duo's five games together — they had played infrequently during the past four seasons — the Penguins have outshot the opposition by 36 while Martin and Letang are on the ice.
“Paul's been great,” Letang said. “We're learning how to play together. It's getting there.”
Niskanen isn't surprised that this Martin — the two-way force who broke up a two-on-one in Game 3 by knocking a pass away from his stomach — has been on display.
“I have seen him play this way,” Niskanen said. “It's nice to see this time of year. He's been really noticeable. It's impressive.”
The quiet man from a quiet place hopes to continue his very loud postseason in Wednesday's Game 4.
“I'm happy with everything,” Martin said. “I just want to keep going.”
(Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.)