Gene Collier: Credit Paul Martin for Rangers' steep deficit

NEW YORK -- No one in Pittsburgh should be dissuaded from remembering Game 4 of the Rangers series as The Malkin Game, starting as it did with Evgeni’s spinning backhand goal between the feet of a stunned Henrik Lundqvist.

No one should be diverted from the lingering image of Malkin, the leading Penguins scorer of this increasingly promising postseason, swooping all over the ice, trading ingenious passes with Sidney Crosby, setting up Chris Kunitz for a goal that erected the final arithmetic, 4-2 Penguins, and 3-1 in a fast evaporating Metropolitan Division final.

But let’s remember just as thoroughly the platform on which Game 4 was built, specifically the relentlessly reliable play of defenseman Paul Martin.


His plus-9 was the best such figure on both teams before the game, and his average time on ice, already the highest on both teams, inflated again Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.

“All of us realized the importance of this game,” Martin said. “Now you’re going home with a chance to seal the deal [Friday night]. It comes down to how you manage the puck and the amount of pressure you can put on them. We kept their scoring chances down, their shots down and, hopefully, the rest takes care of itself.”

Brilliant as can be in this Penguins postseason, Martin finally found a predicament from which not even he could have been expected to escape.

Smack in the middle of the middle period, Martin found himself the rogue Penguins player skating backward into his own zone as three New York Rangers swept across the blue line, a 3-on-1 opportunity the Blueshirts could not possibly screw up.

Not five minutes earlier, they finally had put a tying puck behind Marc-Andre Fleury, ending 145 minutes and 30 seconds worth of scoreless hockey that hurled them into a 2-1 ditch in this Metropolitan Division final.

With the puck on the stick of Rick Nash, flying toward Fleury on the left wing, Martin decided he might as well try something, never mind that there were no good options. He reached toward Nash just as Nash was deciding this was his moment, the freeze frame in which he would no longer have to hear about 10 games without a goal in this postseason, no longer have to be reminded that his 22-game playoff career had included exactly one goal.

So Nash fired at the Penguins goal cage.

He missed, but only by about the length of a crosstown bus.

“They’ve had their opportunities,” Martin said after the Penguins had won a third consecutive game and fifth in their past six. “They haven’t capitalized on them. We’ve been good on the [penalty-kill] and Fleury’s been our best player.”

OK, but there are other worthy nominees.

Fleury had little to do with Nash’s missed moment, unless you interpreted that as the moment at which the Penguins began to feel as though this series were coming to them inalterably, and if that wasn’t it exactly, it surely came just a few minutes later, with Martin in the middle of that, too.

The Rangers were on their second power play of the game, having failed to convert on just the previous 35. Martin’s clearing attempt hit the half-boards at an odd angle and came right to the stick of Mats Zuccarello, a noted Penguins tormentor all season, and Zuccarello started menacingly toward Fleury and perhaps the first New York lead since the close of Game 1.

But Martin recovered brilliantly — there’s that word again — picked Zuccarello’s pocket, cleared the puck, and unwittingly sparked a sequence that went into New York’s night like a dagger.

The ever-churning Brian Gibbons collected the puck at the Rangers blue line and fled in on left wing toward Lundqvist. Flying across the goal mouth, Gibbons lost control of the puck and almost inadvertently left it for Brandon Sutter, who poked it past King Henrik to make it 2-1 Penguins.

“He has the ability to hold on to the puck, to make a play with the puck, and he’s been timely for us in that regard,” Dan Bylsma had said Wednesday of No. 7 after the Penguins finished a morning skate. “He had a two-assist game against Columbus in Game 1. He makes an offensive play out of not a lot by holding onto the puck. You see that offensive ability, you see that puck control that almost wins Game 1 in this series by itself.

“It’s what he can be. I’d like more. I’d always like more.”

Martin played 19:22 of the first 40 minutes after Brooks Oprik, returning to the ice for the first time after missing five games, didn’t last through the first period with his undisclosed and apparently unhealed injury. When it ended, Martin had played a staggering 30:05.

“You just put it out of your mind; hopefully, you’re in decent enough shape to do it,” said this 33-year-old Minnesotan. “I thought we had a pretty good rotation, the way we were doin’ the ‘D’. We’ve just go to keep goin’, getting the puck in deep.”

And now the Rangers might be in too deep.

Gene Collier:

Gene Collier:

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