WINNIPEG, Manitoba – Penguins defenseman Paul Martin made quite the triumphant return to the lineup.
Martin, playing for the first time after missing 18 games with a broken hand, scored the game-winning power-play goal in the third period for Pittsburgh as the Penguins bested the Winnipeg Jets, 4-2, at MTS Centre Thursday night.
“To get that goal on the power play was fun for me to get back,” Martin said. “To get that was big, but a win is even better.”
With the game tied at 2-2, James Neal made a centering pass from the low circle. Martin dropped down to one knee and put all his might into a hard blast from the slot that proved to be the difference in the game.
“They were making fun of me earlier for not shooting hard,” Martin said. “I tried to lean into that one.”
Martin, who suffered the broken hand while playing with Team USA at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, stepped right back into his old role with his typical workload.
Martin skated a team-high 23:46 minutes, while seeing time on the power play and penalty kill. He also had three hits and two blocked shots to go with his game-winner.
“With a long layoff it’s good to get into the game early and get your timing back,” Martin said. “As the game went on I loosened up and felt better.”
More importantly, Martin’s presence was felt from his shift of the game. He was poised with the puck, making the smart read and perfect play. He was calmly making the right passes, whether it was through the legs, up the boards or simply using his stick to slightly change the direction of the puck. Those kind of plays won’t end up on the scoresheet, but their value is enormous.
“To be able to play that type of game after being out with an injury to his hand, I thought he was excellent,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “He’s out in all situations, PK, power play, end of the game and defending against their top line. It was clearly evident what getting him back in the lineup can do for our team.”
The Penguins did not skate in line rushes at the morning skate. And now we know why. The old puck coach had a trick or two up his sleeve.
The Penguins switched around all their forward line combinations. The team used the following lineup:
Bennett had immediate chemistry with Crosby and Kunitz. The trio generated a number of scoring chances and played off each other well. Although there were times when the line passed on shots to make a perfect play. Sometimes when highly skilled players get together that happens. But if those plays work, no one is complaining.
“Beau skated really well in the first period with that line,” Bylsma said. “Created a number of offensive opportunities. … At times he was looking a little too much to pass, but you could see his hockey sense and creating with that line.”
To win in the National Hockey League you need contributions from throughout the lineup. The Penguins received such production against the Jets.
Trailing 2-1 late in the second period, forward Craig Adams buried his fifth goal of the season with a wicked slap shot from above the far circle to tie the game with 1:13 left in the middle frame.
The Penguins were clinging to a 3-2 lead late in the third period when Brian Gibbons intercepted a puck in the neutral zone, skated to the top of the circles and ripped a shot into the netting for his fifth of the season. The score gave Pittsburgh a 4-2 advantage with 3:36 left in the game.
With the Penguins’ 4-2 victory the team officially clinched the Metropolitan Division title. Pittsburgh has now won back-to-back division titles.
Even though winning the division seemed a foregone conclusion since November, the team is still proud of the accomplishment.
“It’s good,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “We’ve gone through a lot this year injury-wise and it hasn’t been easy. Something like that you don’t think about it too much, but it’s nice to clinch that.”
Author: Sam Kasan