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Penguins' Martin finally establishing a rhythm

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Penguins had just dropped a 1-0 heartbreaker to the Capitals for their sixth straight loss, and defenseman Paul Martin, seated at his stall in the locker room, was white as a ghost.

Martin had been ill for days and admitted Saturday that he probably shouldn't have been playing. But Martin, the Penguins' highest paid defenseman who underperformed earlier this season, felt a sense of obligation.

It turns out, he cares a lot more than his stoic demeanor and low-key game suggests.

"People don't understand that about him," assistant coach Todd Reirden said. "Paul's "care factor" is there all the time."

Neither Martin's personality nor his silky-smooth skating suggests he plays the game with great passion, but this past week, he has.

"I'm just now starting to keep food down," he said.

Reirden appreciates the toughness Martin displayed.

"His style of play is never out of control," Reirden said. "Sometimes that's construed as him not playing hard. I can tell you that isn't true. He very badly wants to help us win games."

Martin missed Tuesday's 5-1 loss to Ottawa, and truth be told, had little intention of playing against the Capitals 24 hours later. However, his replacement, rookie Simon Despres, suffered a knee injury against the Senators and was unavailable against Washington.

Making matters worse, defenseman Alexandre Picard, the logical replacement from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, was out with an injury.

"I pretty much had to play," Martin said.

The toughness Martin has displayed this week has impressed the coaching staff. Even more appreciated, perhaps, is the way Martin has performed.

"I thought his last two games were his best in a while in terms of his battle level, his execution and really defending,"coach Dan Bylsma said.

"We need our good players to step up, and Paul has certainly done that in the last two games."

In fact, Martin has been pretty good during the past two months.

Martin, who signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Penguins in 2010, produced an indifferent campaign during his first season in Pittsburgh. The first six weeks of this season were borderline disastrous, as Martin seemingly was responsible for a goal against on a nightly basis while producing far less offense than expected.

"It's been a long year so far," Martin said.

Quietly -- and Martin is among the game's most quiet men -- the stoic defenseman has righted his game. Despite playing much of the season without regular defense partner Zbynek Michalek, the 30-year-old Martin seems to have regained his form from late last season, when he finally became comfortable with Bylsma's system and played strong defensively. He is a plus-3 during his past 18 games and, now that Martin and Michalek are finally healthy, the team's "shutdown pair" could be ready to blossom.

"We haven't been able to play much together," Martin said. "Either he's out or I'm out. It comes down to being comfortable with each other. I know where he's going to be. He knows where I'm going to be. If we can get some time under our belt, I think we'll be good."

Martin missed a couple of weeks with a hamstring injury last month and has been walloped by the flu during the past week. After overcoming his difficult start -- no Penguin has been more criticized this season -- Martin feels like playing while dehydrated was nothing.

"Wasn't fun," he said.

But watching him play lately has been fun for Reirden.

"He's so crafty," Reirden said. "Maybe the average hockey fan doesn't notice some of the things he can do. But he's starting to play really well."

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