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Penguins defensemen Michalek, Martin flourishing apart

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Friday, March 9, 2012
 

Zbynek Michalek laughed at the scene from Braveheart that appeared on the arena scoreboard, with Scottish warriors yelling a name that sounded a lot like his.

Michalek?

MacCulloch?

Either way, "it's a fun thing," he said.

For Michalek and Paul Martin, the past few weeks have been more fun than many others this season. They have been outstanding of late and are part of the reason the Penguins carry a seven-game winning streak into Friday night's game against the Florida Panthers at Consol Energy Center.

Michalek and Martin were stellar defensively a season ago, often matched against top lines, but they've struggled this season to match that consistency. Their resurgence has come since Feb. 12, when coaches decided to split the defensemen.

"We took it personally," Michalek said of the split, "but I didn't blame the coaches. I knew that we didn't play our best, that's why they made a change. It's been working so far."

Their stalls still sit side-by-side in the team's dressing room, but on the ice they've been paired with other teammates. Michalek was paired Wednesday with Brooks Orpik. Martin played with Matt Niskanen. But those, too, could change.

"When you play so many games together, you feel like you're in it together," Martin said, "but sometimes changing things up is refreshing. I think we're both taking it in stride."

The two have six combined points in the past four games, including a Michalek goal Monday against Phoenix that prompted the Braveheart scene. It was Michalek's second goal this season and first at home.

But their defensive statistics are even better. Paired together, Martin's plus-minus rating was minus-6 and Michalek's was minus-10. Since the split, Martin is plus-2 and Michalek is plus-7.

"We are proud guys," Michalek said. "We want to play well for this team. When we got split, we definitely took that personally because that means that something was not going well."

Michalek said his improvement started in practice, with a determination to play more consistently. He has gone six straight games with a positive plus-minus rating. That includes a plus-1 in Wednesday's 3-2 victory over Toronto, when he led the team with 27 shifts and blocked three shots.

"I think sometimes a change is a good thing," coach Dan Bylsma said. "They play well together, but I do think having separated a little bit ... has been good for both."

Martin has at least one assist in three of his past four games but said he hasn't changed his approach or game much since the split. He had two assists Saturday in Colorado.

"I don't feel any differently," Martin said. "Sometimes you get a couple points, you get some pluses and people think you're playing well. So it's all relative."

Bylsma agreed that the plus-minus rating from before the split might have been somewhat misleading. But the changes were made after the Penguins fell behind Tampa Bay, 2-0, in the first period. That came one day after allowing five goals in a victory over Winnipeg.

In the past seven games, the Penguins only once allowed more than two goals.

"A few good games give you a little confidence and you start feeling better," Michalek said.

In the 11 games since the change, the pairings often have switched; first for strategy and later because of injuries to Kris Letang and Deryk Engelland. That has tested the team's depth and made Martin and Michalek's play even more important. They've shared the ice at times, but neither knows whether a reunion lies in their future.

"Nobody has said that we're going to be together any time soon," Michalek said. "Maybe one day we'll be back together. Who knows?"

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