WILMINGTON – Judging by the first couple of days of Bruins practice at Ristuccia Arena leading into the Eastern Conference Finals, it appears that Matt Bartkowski will be in the B’s lineup to start things up against the Pittsburgh Penguins Saturday night at the CONSOL Energy Center.
The 24-year-old defenseman has averaged just under 20 minutes a game for the Bruins since entering into the lineup at the end of the series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and has looked remarkably comfortable in the postseason playing a top-four defenseman role with Boston. The fresh skating legs and surprising physicality make Bartkowski an effective player in all three zones, and also give the Bruins the luxury of taking their time working Andrew Ference back into the fold.
Another thrill beyond simply playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs is suiting up against the Penguins, the team that Bartkowski grew up rooting for as a native of Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania. The B’s blueliner admitted there were posters of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr on his bedroom wall as a kid, and he wouldn’t be playing for the Bruins if it weren’t for those Pittsburgh Cup teams.
But Bartkowski also copped to New Jersey Devils Hall of Famer Scott Stevens as being the NHL player he most idolized growing up, and the one that most shaped his early approach to the game of hockey.
“Any chance I got to watch a Devils game, I definitely watched. I remember watching him in 1996 playing the Penguins in the playoffs,” said Bartkowski. “Sometimes we talk about some of those hits [Stevens] made. If you tried that now you’d get thrown out of the league.”
Far from getting tossed out of the league, he’s on the verge of securing himself a full-time NHL job as a top-four defenseman capable of playing in all situations, while logging more than 20 minutes a night.
Those players don’t exactly grow on trees, but they’re starting to get a little more prevalent in the Pittsburgh hockey breeding ground.
“I was part of the Lemieux era and I probably wouldn’t have been skating if he wasn’t there,” said Bartkowski. “It’s kind of cool that I get to play playoffs in my home town, but at the end of the day I’m on Boston and that’s Pittsburgh and we’re there to win.”
Bartkowski admitted there has been some demand from his family for tickets to a couple of playoff games in Pittsburgh that will be sold out events for the rabid Penguins fan base. But he also said the only family he’ll be providing tickets for are his parents and grandparents, so the hometown distractions will be kept to a minimum.
Claude Julien didn’t sound worried, and it is probably a good thing that Bartkowski has already played multiple games in his hometown, including his NHL debut two years ago against the Penguins in Pittsburgh.
“I think it all depends how you approach it. He seems pretty excited, and he’s looking forward to it. I think at the end of the day, he knows who he’s playing for. He wants to do well for his team,” said Claude Julien. “The better he does, the better he looks in everybody’s eyes, whether it’s his hometown that’s rooting for the other team or whether it’s us. I don’t see an issue with that; if anything, it’s a positive, it’s exciting. You know that he’s going to be ready to play.”
Bartkowski and Torey Krug were difference-makers in the second round series against the Rangers, and Pittsburgh kid is hoping that continues as the Bruins do battle with his talented, high-flying hometown team.