- James Murphy, Bruins reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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WILMINGTON, Mass. -- Rookie defenseman Matt Bartkowski will be heading home when the Bruins travel to Pittsburgh on Friday in preparation for their matchup with the Penguins in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday night.
Bartkowski grew up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Mt. Lebanon, playing for the Mt. Lebanon High School Blue Devils, a local hockey powerhouse, and he couldn’t be more thrilled to be facing the team he cheered for as a kid -- though he jokingly admitted after practice Wednesday that he’s searching for different ways to describe his excitement.
“You can’t believe how many times I’ve been asked that,” Bartkowski said. “It’s going to be awesome. I can’t think of any other way of it happening. Playing a role on the team now, and it's playoff hockey. We’ve been looking at this matchup for a while, especially me.
“The last few years it’s been close to playing Pittsburgh in the playoffs and now it’s finally happening. I’m stoked up, pumped up and ready to go, and I’m sure the rest of these guys are. Everybody’s calling in their favors, this and that and all that crap. It just pumps us up and we’re ready to go.”
Bartkowski was lucky enough to see the tail end of the Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr era in Pittsburgh (Jagr is now his teammate) and then the hockey revival that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin helped create over the last eight seasons.
“It died down for four years or so until Crosby got drafted,” Bartkowski said. “It’s the same thing with the Jagr-Lemieux era. Now it’s the Crosby-Malkin era. Every time they get big players in Pittsburgh, it seems to jump-start all the little kids playing. It’s good for the area.”
If not for current Penguins forward Jarome Iginla, Bartkowski already would be home, his offseason underway. But when Iginla vetoed a trade that would have sent him to Boston and Bartkowski (along with Alexander Khokhlachev and first-round pick) to Calgary, Bartkowski remained with the Bruins, which turned out just fine for all parties involved.
“Thinking about the situations, I would not even be playing right now, and now we've got a shot at the Pens in the conference finals,” Bartkowski said. “It couldn't have worked out any better.”
After the way the playoffs have unfolded for the Bruins, with injuries to veteran defensemen Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference and Wade Redden, that’s an understatement. Bartkowski was part of a rookie trio with Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton that filled in more than admirably against the Rangers and helped the team advance to the conference finals for the second time in three seasons.
“We knew if that trade went through we were losing a good player,” coach Claude Julien said. “We saw him get better. You don’t get that type of a player -- and I’m talking about Iginla -- without having to give something that’s pretty good. Now that it hasn’t happened, we’re really glad to have kept him and to have him here. He’s been a great asset to us.”
Is Julien concerned that the added attention will be too much for Bartkowski?
“No, I don’t think so,” Julien said. “I think it all depends how you approach it. He seems pretty excited, 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.
“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.”