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Penguins notebook: Martin returns, boosts defense

| Thursday, April 3, 2014, 1:57 p.m.
Penguins defenseman Paul Martin, shown here putting a hit on New York Islanders defenseman Mark Streit in this photo from March 2013 is expected to return to the lineup Thursday in Winnipeg. Penguins forwards have expressed that playing without the injured Martin has been difficult because of his ability to quickly retrieve the puck and send it to the forwards.

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Paul Martin is back. Maybe a little bit of the Penguins' swagger is, too.

Among hockey's quietest men, Martin's return is nothing short of a loud development for the Penguins, according to the defenseman's teammates.

Martin scored a goal that snapped a 2-2 tie early in the third period and sent the Penguins to a 4-2 win. He had been out since breaking his hand against the Czech Republic in the Winter Olympics in Sochi. His return against Winnipeg should give Martin ample time to find his conditioning and timing before the Stanley Cup playoffs begin on April 16.

“He's an Olympian for a reason,” left wing Chris Kunitz said. “He has a calm and a patience about him that makes everything easier for everyone else. It makes us better as a team. Having him back gives us an energy.”

Martin returned to his normal spot, alongside defenseman Brooks Orpik. He also played on the top power play against the Jets.

The Penguins' forwards have missed Martin's ability to efficiently send the puck into the offensive zone.

Martin's ability to play 25 minutes effortlessly also should be helpful to defensemen Matt Niskanen and Olli Maatta, who have played far more than expected this season because of injuries.

“He's an important player for us,” Niskanen said. “A lot of our success comes from getting out of our zone clean and quick, and that's what he excels at. He makes plays so quickly for us. He's so solid for us. We really do depend on him a lot.”

Martin said that this three-game road trip was pretty close to when doctors projected he could return to the lineup.

“I felt really good the last couple days of practicing,” Martin said. “Playing was the next step. I think we're right on schedule. It's close to where we thought it would be.”

He doesn't sound concerned about being ready for the postseason.

“Part of the reason I wanted to push to get some games in was to shake off some rust,” he said.

Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg's dynamic right winger, was playing against the Penguins' Dan Bylsma and Tony Granato on Thursday a few weeks after playing for them in Sochi. He was among the final selections for the U.S. Olympic roster. “I'm very appreciative to them for the opportunity,” Wheeler said of the Penguins' coaches. “It was an honor to be a part of that team, part of that experience. It's been such a whirlwind since then that I haven't really had a chance to catch my breath and reflect on it. But one day, I'll look back on it with fond memories.”

• Penguins center Jussi Jokinen was injured in the first period against the Jets when he was steamrolled by a body check from Winnipeg's Dustin Byfuglien, a 265-pound behemoth capable of playing defense or forward for the Jets. Jokinen missed the remainder of the first period but did return.

• The Penguins used two defensemen on their top power play, opting for Martin and Niskanen on the points. Niskanen was fine with the arrangement. A rash of shorthanded goals allowed in March has made the Penguins sensitive to allowing goals on the power play. “It's nice having two defensemen if you've got the lead in the third period,” Niskanen said. “It negates those shorthanded chances.”

• Defensemen Deryk Engelland and Simon Despres were healthy scratches. ... Center Joe Vitale remains out of the lineup with a “mid-body” injury. ... Defenseman Kris Letang (stroke) remains out of the lineup but skated with teammates during the morning skate.

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