Penguins' Olympians look ahead with hope
PITTSBURGH — Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik heard the powers-that-be in USA Hockey emphasize that the criteria for the 2014 Olympic team would be based on both a player’s current level of play and his career body of work.
That didn’t mean there weren’t a few anxious moments for the Pittsburgh Penguins defensemen in the run-up to Wednesday’s announcement.
Martin hasn’t played in more than a month because a broken leg. Orpik missed three weeks with a concussion after getting
sucker-punched by Boston’s Shawn Thornton in early December. That’s not exactly the formula for making an impenetrable case for one of the coveted spots on a team looking to do one better than the silver it captured in Vancouver four years ago.
The overriding emotion for the two Penguins when their names were unveiled Wednesday afternoon wasn’t elation as much as relief.
“It was a little nerve-racking,” Martin said.
Martin was added to the 2006 Olympic team as an emergency backup, though he never played for a squad that finished eighth. He was selected to the 2010 Olympic team despite a broken right forearm, an injury that was expected to heal before the games. It didn’t, forcing Martin to watch on television as Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal lifted Canada to gold.
While hardly proclaiming himself as savior, Martin conceded he’s thought about how things might have gone had he been able to pull on his No. 7 sweater.
“You want to say I wish I would have been there and maybe it would have been different,” he said. “The margin is so small.”
Orpik would know. He was on the U.S. bench during Crosby’s golden goal. While his longtime Penguins teammate celebrated the moment of a lifetime, he bowed his head to don a silver medal that marked a significant step forward for a program picked to finish well off the podium.
“It’s crazy when you watch the guys in other sports, how excited they are to win a silver medal,” Orpik said. “I think it’s the way we lost and who we lost to, who scored the goal. ... Maybe after the season we appreciated it a little bit more even if it wasn’t the ultimate goal you’re looking for.”
Orpik returned to the lineup last week after missing eight games while he recuperated from Thornton’s attack. He picked up an assist in his return against Carolina on Dec. 27 and looks like his usual physical self for the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference at the season’s midway point.
The grind of an NHL season will be replaced in February by a two-week sprint for glory. Martin insists he’ll be ready, estimating he can get “8-10 games” in before hopping on a plane to Russia.
His career has come a full 360 degrees since Vancouver. He signed a five-year, $25-million contract with Pittsburgh in 2010 only to serve as the touchstone for a sometimes porous defense that saw the franchise’s Stanley Cup runs end abruptly in 2011 and ‘12.
That disappointment has turned into fuel for a late-career renaissance. Martin has played some of the best hockey of his life over the last 12 months when healthy. He’s an adept quarterback at the point on Pittsburgh’s dynamic power play, and his smooth skating should play well on the wider international rink used in the Olympics.
“I’ve been around awhile. I know what to expect,” Martin said.
That’s true particularly when Orpik is at his side. While Penguins coach Dan Bylsma — who just so happens to be the U.S. coach — didn’t tip his hand, Orpik and Martin expect to jump over the boards at the same time during the games. Their comfort level with each other and knowledge of Bylsma’s system will also make them valuable translators for Olympic teammates who have only a scant few days to get ready for the pressure of playing for their country in front of the entire world.
“I think we’ll definitely be able to share some knowledge on what we’ve been doing,” Martin said. “This is something you definitely don’t want to take for granted.”