by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
You know how fans on the talk shows sometimes start grumbling about Twins or Vikings veterans, especially the highly-paid guys, when their performance slips? Well, Elk River’s favorite son Paul Martin had to go through some of that this winter with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Martin, heading toward the NHL playoffs for the seventh time in his seven pro seasons, has seen more “ups and downs” than usual, although things are going more smoothly now.
The Penguins, with their marquee player Sidney Crosby limited to 17 games due to concussion symptoms and a neck injury, have a 47-24-6 record as of Thursday, fourth-best in the NHL. With Crosby back now, they trail the New York Rangers in the Atlantic Division and are one of three teams in the division (Philadelphia is the other) to have clinched a playoff slot, with five games remaining. The Pens were 8-1-1 in a recent 10-game stretch before losing their last two games. Martin had two assists in a 5-3 loss to the Islanders on Thursday evening.
Penguin fans on talk radio and chat rooms have been taking shots at Martin, a player good enough to make the Olympic team two years ago although he missed the opportunity with an injury. He’s been a Penguin the last two years after five with the New Jersey Devils.
The fact that he’s the highest-paid defender on the team ($5 million) brings him extra scrutiny and is one reason he was rumored to be on the trading block as the deadline approached in February.
“There’s definitely been ups and downs this year,” Martin, 31, said on a pod-casted interview Feb. 24 on “The Fan Morning Show” in Pittsburgh. “Right now, not being able to do anything about the past, I just have to be sure I can control the future.”
Martin, ever the polite, respectful gentleman, added that “hockey is a game of a lot of bounces, a lot of different things,” implying that fans don’t always have the full picture.
Martin and Zybnek Michalek joined the Penguins last year and had a strong first season as a tandem, helping the Penguins rank sixth in the NHL defensively. The same duo struggled at times this year, though, ranking a team-low minus-ten together as of Feb. 22.
However, since coach Dan Bylsma started pairing Martin with Kris Letang most of the time, Martin is up to plus-seven. In March he’s made seven assists and has a plus-12 rating. For the season Martin has a goal and 25 assists.
Martin told the interviewer that he has “a pretty thick skin, and good tunnel vision, by now” but added that any player wants fans to feel he’s doing well.
Teammate James Neal told NBC Sports “Pro Hockey Talk” that it’s been “frustrating” to see his close friend taking heat. “Maybe he doesn’t score much, but you have to think about what he does in his own end, how good of a stick he has, and how hard he is to play against.”
Along with Crosby, a new star has emerged in Pittsburgh, Evgeni Malkin, 25-year-old Russian who has scored 46 goals.
The Penguins are wildly popular in Pittsburgh with 247 straight sellouts. Capacity at the two-year-old Consol Center is 18,601. That’s a great situation for Martin, who was accustomed to packed houses with the Minnesota Gophers (and with the Elks) but played with spotty attendance at New Jersey for five years.