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A Complementary Pair

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
Joining a new team is never easy.

It’s tough entering another National Hockey League organization, trying to adjust to a brand-new atmosphere, brand-new teammates and a whole different style of play while bringing your best game to the ice every night.

But what’s made the transition easy for veteran defensemen Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek, both in their first seasons with the Penguins, has been playing alongside each other.

“It definitely makes it easier when (Michalek)’s experienced,” Martin said. “He knows what he’s doing. I think we complement each other’s games well and we’ve been getting better as the season’s went on, kind of recognizing where we’re going to be and the plays we should make. So I think the more time that we’ve spent together, the better we’ve been. So hopefully we continue to go that way.”

Michalek agreed, adding, “We’ve been put together after maybe 15-20 games into the season, and right away we started playing well together. He’s a great guy to play with. He’s so calm with the puck, he makes so many good plays. It’s been working well so far for us. It’s a long season, there are ups and downs all the time, but altogether we’ve been playing pretty well.”

Assistant coach Todd Reirden paired the two players together back in November after Michalek returned from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for nine games. The pair has been a stalwart in the lineup ever since.

They’ve been playing their best hockey of the season as of late, providing a rock-solid presence on the back-end with some of the Penguins’ top offensive guns (see: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin) being out with injuries, while averaging more than 20 minutes a night.

“Michalek and Martin have played some great games,” head coach Dan Bylsma said following the team’s 3-0 whitewashing of the New York Islanders on Wednesday. “The last couple have been really, really solid.”

Each player signed a five-year contract with the Penguins on July 1, 2010, the first day of free agency.

They were steals for Pittsburgh, as Martin and Michalek were quietly each the top defensemen and as well as alternate captains on their respective teams. Martin anchored the blue line for five seasons in New Jersey, while Michalek did the same in Phoenix for the same stretch of time.

“In the summer, I was excited about having those types of guys join our D group that we thought was already fairly strong,” Reirden said. “They’re both great two-way defensemen that bring a veteran presence. They’ve been the top guy on their prior clubs, and whenever you get a chance to add someone that’s logged those kinds of minutes and played that type of a role for good teams, we’re happy to have them.”

While they’re both experienced veterans, each entering the league in 2003, it was still a bit of a process to get used to each other’s style of play and establish chemistry on the ice.

Martin is more of a mobile, puck-moving defenseman who likes to join the rush and is used to quarterbacking the power play, while Michalek is a stay-at-home blueliner who is utilized in shorthanded situations.

But those opposite styles are what make them complement each other.

“I think with both of them learning a little bit of the way we do things differently together has made things easier for them,” Reirden said. “I think it’s allowed guys that have played together in the past to continue to have continuity, like Brooks (Orpik) and Kris (Letang) and of course Alex (Goligoski) playing with either Deryk (Engelland) or Ben (Lovejoy) ... So I think it’s allowed us to have a really solid group of six guys back there, and certainly I’ve been happy with their work as of late for sure.”
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