By JOSH DUBOW
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Back when the playoffs started nearly seven weeks ago, San Jose Sharks defenseman Paul Martin wondered what it would be like to play his old teammates in Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Final.
There were plenty of steps needed before that could happen considering the Sharks had never made it that far in their entire history and the Penguins hadn’t been to the final in seven years.
But come Monday night at the start of Game 1, Martin will be matched up against players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin after spending the past five seasons as their teammate.
“Once the puck drops, it’s all business, but obviously the relationship with some of the guys that have been there, for five years with some of their guys,” Martin said. “Once Pitt finished the season the way that they did and got into the playoffs, and the way that we were playing, in the back of your head you know it’s a possibility. Each round that goes by, you know that it’s obviously even more likely going to happen. I think I was kind of expecting it, for the most part.”
The Penguins have changed a bit since Martin left as a free agent last summer. Coach Mike Johnston was fired in December and replaced by Mike Sullivan and general manager Jim Rutherford brought in several new players, including Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin.
But Martin still has friends on the team that he will be matched up against starting Monday night, although those relationships are now on hold.
“I won’t talk to him the next two weeks,” Penguins defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. “I won’t make eye contact with him. I won’t text him. He has been a huge supporter of me throughout my young career when I was here and I love him to death.”
Martin is also a major reason why San Jose made it here after years of playoff disappointments. His steady presence has allowed offensive-minded defense partner Brent Burns to roam free as one of the league’s most dangerous blue liners.
After some shaky moments early in the season when Burns’ risky plays led to scoring chances for opponents, the two have made a formidable defense pairing behind the shutdown duo of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun that has given the Sharks more depth on defense than they have ever had.
“I can’t say enough about how good he is on the ice and keeping things calm,” Burns said. “He’s such a smart player. Great stick. I’ve said it before, too, but he’s an unbelievable passer. He always puts it in a good spot to shoot.”
Martin had three goals and 17 assists this season, with a plus-13 rating. He and Burns had been outstanding in the playoffs as San Jose got past Los Angeles, Nashville and St. Louis to get here. Martin has a plus-10 rating this postseason and also plays on the second power-play unit and penalty killing situations.
“Paul is just a highly efficient player,” general manager Doug Wilson said. “The greatest compliment of a player is he makes everyone around him better. Paul, he’s that in spades. He’s been outstanding, not just for Brent Burns but for all the players to understand what a professional really is.
While much has been made of longtime Sharks like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau making the final for the first time ever, Martin also had a long wait to get here.
Despite making the playoffs in each of his first 11 NHL seasons with New Jersey and Pittsburgh, Martin never made it past the conference final. When he went into free agency last summer, finding a team that could help get him over the hump was a priority.
San Jose was coming off its first missed playoffs since 2003, but Martin saw the talent that was there with players like Pavelski, Burns, Thornton and Marleau and signed a four-year deal with the Sharks on the opening day of free agency.
“It wasn’t too much of a pitch,” he said. “I think it was something that I wanted as well. If it wasn’t going to be back in Pitt, it was going to be somewhere new for me. This was a great opportunity with a team they already had and the potential. ... We’ve put in a lot of hard work and we still have a lot of work to do, but it’s been a good ride so far.”