By Paul Gackle, Special Correspondent
May 27, 2016
Paul Martin's addition to the Sharks blue line, and subtraction from the Pittsburgh Penguins defensive corps, could be a key factor in the Stanley Cup Final. (Getty Images)
SAN JOSE -- Unsung hero Paul Martin could prove to be one of the most valuable pieces on the chessboard in the Stanley Cup Final.
But against the Penguins, Martin will be more than just a wingman to the NHL's top-scoring defenseman. He and the rest of the Sharks' blue line will be tasked with slowing down an offense that ran circles around the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning during the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The team boasts a first line with Sidney Crosby, who led the NHL in scoring after Jan. 1 (58 points); a second line of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin that scored a combined 12 even-strength points against the Lightning; and a third line with two former Olympians in Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz.
"Their offense speaks for itself," defenseman Brenden Dillon said. "Any time you have the high-end-caliber players that they have spread out over three lines, even four lines -- Eric Fehr, Matt Cullen, those aren't fourth-line players -- it's a lot to handle."
The Penguins' offense is producing 35.1 shots on goal per game in the playoffs and they outshot the Lightning 269-178 in the Eastern Conference finals, including margins of 41-21 in Game 2, 48-28 in Game 3 and 39-17 in Game 7.
But they haven't faced a defensive corps as deep as the Sharks.
With exceptional puck-retrieving defensemen such as Martin and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, strong puck-moving blue liners such as Burns and Justin Braun, and physical players such as Dillon and Roman Polak, the Sharks will be looking to quash the Penguins' attack before it can even get started.
"The less time we spend in our zone the better," Martin said. "For them, that's what they key on."
But the Sharks can also diffuse the Penguins' offense by exploiting their biggest weakness -- defense -- which is why they're probably really going to miss Martin in the series.
"We heard in earlier series how Washington missed having Wardo (Ward) in their playoff lineup. I wouldn't be surprised if we hear that (about Martin with Pittsburgh)," Dillon said. "The series hasn't gotten started yet, but he's a big part of our back end."
After losing Trevor Daly to a leg injury for the remainder of the playoffs in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Penguins will be leaning heavily on top defenseman Kris Letang, who logged 28:13 in Game 7 against Lightning, while the third pairing of Justin Schultz and Ian Cole saw just 12:50 and 10:43 of ice time, respectively.
The Sharks' forwards, especially the top line of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl, which collected a combined 17 even-strength points in the Western Conference finals, has proved to be more than a handful for Olympic-caliber defensemen like Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings, Shea Weber and Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators and Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk of the St. Louis Blues throughout the playoffs.
If they establish their forecheck and keep the puck pinned in the offensive zone against the Penguins' depleted defense, like they did against the Kings, Blues and Predators, the Sharks can cripple their attack rather easily.
"If you can keep the Malkins, the Kessels, the Crosbys in their own zone defending, it will be hard for them to score goals," Dillon said. "Their offense is so good, but everyone has a weak spot."
Another area where Martin could prove to be a difference-maker in the series is the scouting reports he can offer the Sharks' coaching staff about his former teammates. After facing the likes of Crosby and Malkin in practice every day for five seasons, DeBoer said Martin is providing him with some "intimate knowledge."
"Any time you play with guys, you have insight on their group," DeBoer. "We've asked him some questions on that."