It’s a whole new ballgame for the baby Bruins defenseman this time around.
Matt Bartkowski, Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug all took turns playing some very big roles in last year's playoff run, and the B’s couldn’t have made it to the Stanley Cup Finals against Chicago without them.
Still, it’s a different story this season with so much more of Boston’s fate tied to the young defensemen and their ability to perform under the intense playoff pressure.
A year ago they were injury replacements -- Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference and Wade Redden were there in case things really went up in smoke, and there wasn’t a great deal of expectation for any of the B’s young guns -- and they exceeded expectations. In the process, they got the Bruins front office excited about their bright futures.
But this season, those three veterans are gone. Among Krug, Hamilton and Bartkowski, at least two will be counted on to be mainstays in the Boston playoff lineup. So they need to be solid and air-tight during the playoffs, and not be the weak link some outgunned opponents are probably hoping they’ll end up being.
There are enough healthy bodies on hand that they’ll be sitting on the bench if coach Claude Julien has any reservations. Hamilton, Krug and Bartkowski have all been healthy scratches since the Bruins brought Andrej Meszaros and Corey Potter on board, and Meszaros’ ability to play both left and right side means he could ostensibly play in place of any of them.
Bartkowski was the last of the three D-men to serve as a healthy scratch this month, but it came on the heels of one of his worst efforts of the season. Bartkowski lost focus on an offensive zone faceoff in the closing minutes of the second period Monday night against Minnesota that allowed Jason Pominville to bust out for a breakaway goal. It was an obvious mistake, and it caught the ire of Julien because it happened at a key moment with less than two minutes to go in the period.
Those are the moments where Julien stresses solid, responsible defense to sustain momentum, and miscues such as the Bartkowski gaffe could have disastrous results were they to happen in the playoffs. So Julien said it was time for Bartkowski to take his turn in the press box Tuesday night in New Jersey, but stressed it was a message that all the young defensemen should heed.
“They’re young players, but at the same time I want them to learn that they have to work hard to be consistent every game," said Julien. “I don’t want any of those guys to assume that they’ve got a spot wrapped up on the back end. I don’t want them to think it’s going to be automatic no matter how they play. It’s a message that I think helps a guy grow as a pro.”
Given that the Bruins have gone through a number of different defense combos since Meszaros arrived, there doesn't seem to be a clear-cut plan as to who will be the top six blue-liners to start the postseason. It will come down to the final month, and how Krug, Bartkowski and Hamilton play at both ends of the ice.
Krug would seem the safe bet to already have a spot wrapped up, given his importance on the power play and the fact that he’s had far more good days than bad days this season. Hamilton has also noticeably stepped up the physical intensity; he smoked Jeff Skinner with an open-ice hit last weekend that had playoffs written all over it.
There’s still an excellent chance Meszaros could replace Hamilton or Bartkowski in the playoff lineup should there be more forgettable games like Bartkowski's mistake-filled effort against Minnesota. It’s up to the young defensemen to show the steadiness and intensity the Bruins are looking for as the regular-season dress rehearsals start to dwindle.