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Martin's play says it all for Sharks

Unlike defense partner Burns, veteran is quiet, calming presence for San Jose heading into Final against Penguins

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

SAN JOSE -- It is hard to miss Brent Burns, on the ice, off the ice, anywhere. He is all hair and beard and missing teeth and colorful tattoos and plaid suit coats. He is, as they say, a character. He has enough personality and flair for two, which is handy for his understated defense partner. 

Paul Martin, unlike Burns, could melt into a crowd. He is not necessarily the first person you spot as he walks down a street, not up for a major trophy this season (Burns is a finalist for the Norris) and the adjectives he garners are as far from flashy as he is. He is steady, stabilizing, communicative.

He is calm.

He is also a reason, though perhaps not the most noticeable one, why the San Jose Sharks have made the Stanley Cup Final, set to begin Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports) in Pittsburgh against the Penguins, the team Martin played with for the past five seasons. 

"It's hard," Burns said, during the Western Conference Final, of getting this far in the playoffs. "I don't think people realize how small the gap is and how hard it is and how important it is to take advantage of opportunities like this."

Sometimes it takes one addition, or two or three, to a core that's been almost - but not quite - there in the past. Perhaps that was what happened this season, with the Sharks and Joonas Donskoi and Joel Ward and Martin Jones and, yes, Paul Martin.

Video: WPG@SJS: Martin's PPG pads Sharks' lead

Martin has been in the postseason every season of his career, starting in 2003-2004 with the New Jersey Devils and moving through five playoff campaigns with the Penguins. But he has reached just one Conference Final and has never reached the Stanley Cup Final, not until this season, even as he has appeared in 103 playoff games.
He joined the Devils as a rookie the fall after they won the Stanley Cup in 2003, and signed with the Penguins in 2010, a year after they won.

He knows how difficult this is.

But he also knew that the Sharks would have a chance, one reason he signed a four-year contract with them on July 1, with general manager Doug Wilson at the time citing his heavy minutes, his background on winning teams, his ability to play with "high-end players." All of that has come into play this season, not least his ability to play with Burns. 

"He's an unbelievable partner," Burns said. "He's fun to be around off the ice. I think that's huge. Can't say enough, he's been great.

"I don't know if it's experience, I just think his personality is very - he's very calm. I think the good thing is he reads plays really well and we've developed chemistry that I can read off him and he reads off me, and it's been working."

He has been stabilizing. Martin and Burns have been communicating, talking after games, Facetiming to go over shifts or plays. They have been the right players with the right partners at the right time for the Sharks. And they have helped them get to this point, to the Final.

"I think we complement each other well," Martin said. "He's a big personality, enjoys making noise. But he loves the game and coming to the rink. I'm more reserved and quiet, so I think we complement each other well that way off the ice. 

"On the ice, I think our games are the same. I read off him, let him do his thing, and then I'm hopefully there to help him out when he needs some help. It's been a good work in progress. Hopefully it only gets better."

Burns, as Martin put it, is such a proud player, one who cares so much and takes it so hard when he makes a mistake, that Martin has tried to help him focus on not getting bogged down in those moments. As Martin said, it's "almost to a fault, where if he makes a mistake he carries too much of that burden."

Now, he can let that go more easily. He can do that, too, because Martin is often there to catch him. 

"When you've got a guy that is a thoroughbred, that jumps up the ice … [if] he turns the puck over deep in the other team's zone, Paul can stall and defend and deflect, allowing Burns to get back into the play because he's so fast and so strong and so big that he gets back," said Gary Agnew, an assistant coach last season with the Penguins. "Like all those types of defensemen, whether you look at [Kris] Letang or [P.K.] Subban, you need someone who can do that, and I think Paul's one of the best at it."

So the move to California has done him good. The veteran defenseman has fit in perfectly with his new team after his exit was lamented by his old one, even as that old team rolled through the latter half of the season and into the Final itself. 

And he doesn't mind being overlooked, not on a team with as many stars as the Sharks have, with big names and big talents. Not on a defense with Burns, or even on a defense pair with him. He knows his is not the sexiest name on the Sharks.

While Burns garners the headlines - for his play and his personality, one that Martin said has "made me feel young," despite a four-year gap between the 31-year-old Burns and 35-year-old Martin - Martin is able to be quiet, be steady, be there. He can be the foil for his partner against his old team. 

"Paul's more of a 'I'm going to come to the rink, I'm going to do my job and then I'm going to sneak out the back door and go fishing' [guy]," Agnew said. "He's just that guy. He's certainly not underrated by the players in the league, but I don't think they pay a lot of attention to him because he's not the flash-and-dash. He's solid as a rock."

He's not Burns, in so many ways. But he is exactly what the Sharks need him to be.

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