The pass from Evgeni Malkin came from the far side of the slot as Paul Martin pinched hard on a back-door play. Carolina goaltender Cam Ward had moved out to guard against a Malkin shot. The setting was perfect.
Until Martin missed the unguarded net.
"Oh, yeah, it was wide open," Martin said of a play Tuesday night that could have given the Penguins a lead in a tight game.
Martin could smile about it the next day. So could assistant Todd Reirden, who oversees the defensemen. And coach Dan Bylsma.
That's because not only did the Penguins win the game, 2-1, in a shootout, but Martin also has recovered from a subpar start this season.
- Matchup: Penguins vs. New York Rangers, 7:08 p.m. today, Madison Square Garden, New York.
- TV/Radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Henrik Lundqvist for Rangers.
- Penguins: Are 3-0 since six-game losing streak. ... Are 5-6 within Atlantic Division. ... Evgeni Malkin has 7 goals, 9 points, 32 shots over past 6 games.
- Rangers: Are 2-2 since five-game winning streak. ... Are 9-1 within Atlantic Division. ... 13.5 penalty minutes per game among most in NHL.
- Hidden stat: Rangers' .705 winning percentage through 44 games represents their best start in 40 years.
"I think you've seen him play his very best the last four games," Bylsma said. "It's been a big bonus for our defense."
Martin is a shutdown defenseman with enough puck skill and savvy to play the point on the power play some and aid in the Penguins transition game.
Six weeks into the season, though, Martin was off-kilter. He was not joining the offense much, his plus-minus rating was a bloated minus-11 and he was a little down on himself -- "Sometimes you get the feeling like it's going to be in the back of the net no matter what you do," he said then.
Going into the game tonight against the Rangers in New York, Martin, 30, is playing with a recognizable confidence. He has improved his plus-minus to minus-6 after being a minus in just six of his past 21 games. He has gotten eight of his 12 assists over the past 16 games -- including his 200th point Tuesday on a Malkin goal.
"He's better in all areas of the game," Reirden said. "We never lost faith or confidence in him."
While bothered by his early play, Martin did not lose faith in himself.
"I've been around long enough to realize it's a long year," he said. "Yeah, I've been going better. You just want to try to maintain it and keep it going."
When it seemed opponents were scoring far too much when he was on the ice, Martin might have retreated into a defensive shell.
"I think that's human nature," Reirden said.
Eventually, Martin broke free from those self-imposed restraints.
"A lot of it is, you want to play a certain way," he said. "I'm a responsible player when it comes to playing defense and doing the right things, but, sometimes, you can only do that for so long before you get bored and stagnant with it.
"You still have to play the game."
Over time, that's what he did, and well in all areas of the ice.
"Earlier this season he maybe was on the back end of some [bad] bounces, and he was playing a lot of minutes in some games due to the fact that we didn't have a full complement of players," Bylsma said.
"Right now, he's playing very aggressively, very good defensively. His puck execution is the best it's been all year in terms of going back for pucks, coming out of the [defensive] zone. I think you've really seen him add offensively as well, both in the rush and, as we saw [Tuesday] night, in the offensive zone, really making a smart play and a smart read and getting involved in the offense."
Even if he did not finish off that back-door play.
"I didn't realize the goalie was out [to the side] and [the puck] kind of jammed me a little bit," Martin said. "That's one of those things, cross-ice, you're just trying to get a piece of it. I think I was squeezing the stick a little too hard."
One thing missing for big chunks of the season was a chance for Martin to play with his regular partner, Zbynek Michalek. The two were signed as free agents in July 2010 with the idea that they would make a good shutdown pairing and strong penalty-killers.
Michalek missed long stretches because of a broken finger and a concussion. Martin has missed time because of a leg injury and illness. They have dressed on the same night just 20 times in 45 games, including the past four.
"We've kind of rotated in and out of the lineup," Martin said. "I think we do have a little chemistry from last year that helps. I know what he's going to do most of the time and the type of player he is."
The Penguins are being reminded what type of player Martin is, too.
For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org , 412-263-1721 First Published January 19, 2012 5:00 AM