WILMINGTON, Mass. — The smile spread across Matt Bartkowski‘s face even before the question was finished.
How will it feel to play against his hometown Penguins, the team he rooted for as a youngster?
“I can’t believe how many times I’ve been asked that,” the Bruins rookie defenseman said with a laugh. “It’s going to be awesome.”
Especially if Boston upsets Pittsburgh, the club that won two Stanley Cups in the 1990s with two players who became his idols, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.
Now Lemieux is a co-owner of the Penguins and Jagr is Bartkowski’s teammate in Boston. The teams begin the Eastern Conference finals in Pittsburgh on Saturday night.
“It’s kind of cool we get to play playoffs in my hometown,” Bartkowski said. “At the end of the day, I’m on Boston and that’s Pittsburgh. We’re there to win.”
A former standout at Mt. Lebanon High — a proud school with its own rink tucked away neatly in a suburb south of Pittsburgh — Bartkowski made his playoff debut in Game 5 of the opening round against Toronto after being recalled from Providence of the AHL to replace the injured Wade Redden.
He next appeared in Game 7 vs. the Maple Leafs, scoring the first goal before the road team posted the next four. But he and the Bruins rallied, won 5-4 in overtime, and suddenly, he appeared as if he was there to stay.
He played well, with time in all five games of the next round against the New York Rangers. But Andrew Ference, sidelined the last seven games with a lower body injury, could return soon, and that could leave Bartkowski out of the lineup.
All that said, he’s already accomplished more than he could have imagined when he was lightly recruited out of high school.
“I knew he could be a pretty good player probably by his junior year,” said Paul Taibi, his high school coach. “The NHL was kind of a dream still at that point.”
As a senior, Taibi said, Bartkowski was the best player in Pennsylvania. But hockey’s popularity in the western part of the state had declined by then — a lull between the end of the Lemieux-Jagr era and the start of the Sidney Crosby–Evgeni Malkin era.
“At that point, I was probably 14 or so,” Bartkowski said. “It died down for a solid four years or so until Crosby got drafted. … Every time they get big players in Pittsburgh, it seems to jump start all the little kids playing, so it’s good for the area.”
The Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, their first championship since they won their second straight in 1992, three days before Bartkowski turned 4. They played then in the Civic Arena — also known as the Igloo — at 66 Mario Lemieux Place, and Bartkowski remembers skating there as a youngster.
He finally received some attention at the Chicago Showcase, a tournament for lightly recruited high school players where he was most valuable player. He spent two years in the United States Hockey League before being drafted in the seventh round by the Florida Panthers in 2008. But he chose to play at Ohio State for two seasons.
“I was drafted by Florida but I didn’t really go to any camps,” he said. “So I’d watch the Penguins games. I was still a Penguins fan.”
Before Bartkowski played for the Panthers, they traded him to the Bruins in March 2010.
He made his NHL debut on Jan. 10, 2011, in a familiar place, Pittsburgh: The Bruins won 4-2, overcoming a 2-0 deficit with four goals in the last four minutes. And his next two games? Both against the Penguins in Boston.
“You could see the potential, but it was raw and he needed some experience. He needed to get himself more confident,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “Right now, what we’ve seen in this guy is he has no fear.
“He knows he can play in this league, and it shows.”
With just 27 games in his NHL career, including seven in the playoffs, he’s returning to a city where friends and family members will be in the stands.
Julien doesn’t think that will be a distraction.
“He seems pretty excited. He’s looking forward to it,” Julien said. “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.”
Bartkowski knows he has to play physically and be in the right position against the Penguins’ potent offense. He’s eager to get started.
“I’m stoked up, pumped up and ready to go,” he said. “I’m sure the rest of these guys are because everybody’s calling them the favorites.”
For the first time, Bartkowski is getting steady playing time in the NHL. It’s allowed him to get into a rhythm and develop teamwork with other Bruins, a crew viewed among the deepest in the league.
“He’s playing with so much confidence right now,” said Taibi, who talks to him often. “I finally think he believes that’s where he belongs. He was playing without that cloud of, ‘Am I going to play the next game?’ He knew he was going to be in the lineup pretty much the whole [Rangers] series. He just needed a chance to prove himself, and I think he’s passed with flying colors.”
And he’s playing with his idol. The Bruins obtained Jagr from Dallas on April 2.
“It’s awesome because I looked up to him,” Bartkowski said. “It’s pretty cool to be able to play with him now.”
Any chance Bartkowski had of reaching the playoffs had seemed to disappear a few days earlier. Just before the March 28 trade deadline the Bruins thought they had sent him to Calgary as part of a trade for Jarome Iginla that they hoped would boost their offense. They even scratched Bartkowski from their lineup that day.
But Iginla waived his no-trade clause only for Pittsburgh, and he went there.
“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.”
His hometown and his new town await.