Heading Home: Bartkowski Going Back to Pittsburgh

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.”

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 – located at 66 Mario Lemieux Place, and Bartkowski remembers skating there as a youngster.

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.

Bruins coach Claude 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.

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.

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.

“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.