WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Paul Martin probably could have had a bigger impact on the outcome of this game.
It’s just hard to imagine how.
He led the Penguins in ice time, logging 23 minutes and 46 seconds.
Skated a regular shift alongside Brooks Orpik.
Played the point on a power play that came within a split-second of generating multiple goals for the first time in the past seven games.
And, oh yeah, scored the winner in the Penguins’ 4-2 victory against Winnipeg Thursday night at MTS Centre.
Other than that, Martin had a fairly uneventful evening in his first game back after missing 18 because of a broken hand.
“He didn’t miss a beat, right from the start,” Orpik said. “He didn’t look rusty at all to me. He moved the puck extremely well and the calmness and patience that he always plays with didn’t disappear.”
No, but any chance Philadelphia had of overtaking the Penguins for first place in the Metropolitan Division did. That actually happened about an hour before the Penguins game ended, because the Flyers were beaten at home by Columbus, 2-0.
Although the Penguins (49-23-5) winning the Metropolitan makes sunrises in the East seem like a major upset, that didn’t detract from their satisfaction — likely because there have been times this season when simply fielding a healthy 20-man squad was almost as challenging as winning games.
“When you think about what we’ve gone through and the injuries we’ve had, that’s pretty good,” said center Sidney Crosby, who had two assists to run his league-leading points total to 102.
While Martin’s return had the most profound impact, his comeback wasn’t the Penguins’ only significant personnel change.
Coach Dan Bylsma reconfigured his forward lines, plugging Beau Bennett into the spot Lee Stempniak had been filling alongside Crosby and Chris Kunitz.
Stempniak dropped down to the third line, with Brandon Sutter and Tanner Glass.
Whether that switch was more than an experiment remains to be seen, but the early reaction to having Bennett back in a top-six role was mostly positive.
“Beau skated really well in the first period with that line,” said Bylsma, who reached 250 victories faster than any coach in NHL history.
“You could see his hockey sense and [ability to] create with that line.”
He added, however, that Bennett’s “execution with the puck could have been better,” and that he passed up some opportunities to shoot.
Bennett didn’t do that on a power play at 12:44 of the opening period, however, as he took a cross-ice feed from Crosby and threw the puck past Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec from low in the left circle for his third this season, just as a penalty to Winnipeg defenseman Mark Stuart expired.
That was not credited as a man-advantage goal, but that detail didn’t detract from how the power play looked more efficient than it has in a while with Martin back in the mix.
“He’s really smart, and that kind of calming aspect brings a lot to a power play,” Crosby said.
Despite taking that lead, the Penguins stumbled in the second, giving up goals to Olli Jokinen and Zach Redmond in the first half of the period.
Winnipeg had a clear edge for much of the those 20 minutes — “It wasn’t a great period for us,” Penguins forward Craig Adams said — but the course of the game was altered when Adams pulled the Penguins even at 18:47.
He had scored just once in the previous 72 games, but threw a shot past Pavelec to give the Penguins momentum that carried them through the balance of the game.
“It’s always fun to score goals,” Adams said. “Particularly when we kind of needed one.”
They still needed another, and Martin provided it when he scored from near the left hash at 7:42 of the third. Brian Gibbons closed out the scoring at 16:24, and the Penguins had a chance to savor the division title they had been closing in on for so long.
“Obviously, we got ahead pretty early,” Orpik said. “But I don’t know if it’s any less satisfying because it’s not as dramatic as winning it on the last day or whatever.”
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG First Published April 3, 2014 10:43 PM