BOSTON – One month ago, Bruins rookie Torey Krug had played just three NHL games: an overtime loss to Montreal on March 27, and two late-season games last year. Matt Bartkowski was seasoned by comparison, but the 20 career games he had under his belt hardly qualified him as a veteran.
But fate, in the form of ill-timed injuries to Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference and Wade Redden, has the young Bruin defensemen picking up big playoff minutes, and they’ve shown little sign of youthful inexperience.
Bartkowski, who has been on the periphery of the Bruins’ lineup for two-plus years, is now averaging 19:46 of ice time over four playoff games, and his first career NHL goal came at the beginning of Boston’s thrilling Game 7 win over Toronto on May 13. He filled in for Redden in Games 5 and 7 against the Leafs, and has played in both games against the Rangers with Redden, Ference and Seidenberg all on the sidelines.
Krug got the call to join the lineup for the start of the series against the Rangers, and the form that had him scoring 13 goals and 32 assists for Providence this year has shown up in Boston as well. Krug scored the Game 1 power play goal that gave the Bruins a response to the Ranger goals at the end of the second period and beginning of the third.
In Game 2, he was even better. In the first period of Saturday’s 5-2 Bruins win, Krug deftly took a just-off-target pass from Nathan Horton, putting his stick between his legs to get the puck into shooting position and burying a low shot past the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist for the first goal of the game.
In the second, Krug showed off some more fancy footwork to put the puck on his stick, setting up a rebound goal by Greg Campbell that gave the Bruins a 2-1 lead. The goal and the shot leading to Campbell’s rebound tally were the only shots Krug took in the game, but he made the most of them.
“In practice, talking with the other players, they’ve been really helpful with me on the ice,” Krug said. “They tell me, ‘if you’ve got a shot, take it.’ I think everyone in this room’s a smart hockey player, and they know when to take shots and when not to, most of the time.”
Bartkowski’s impression has been more about his work in the defensive end. He’s surely no Dennis Seidenberg, but he’s been a more-than-capable partner for veteran Johnny Boychuk.
“He’s been skating really well, we’ve been talking a lot on the ice,” Boychuk said. “It’s just easier when you’re vocal and you trust what your partner says.”
Bartkowski also set up arguably the biggest goal of Saturday’s win. New York’s Derek Stepan tried to swipe a loose puck to Carl Hagelin in the offensive zone, but Bartkowski harassed him into coughing up possession. That sent Patrice Bergeron flying up the ice with Brad Marchand, and Bergeron found his winger with a perfect cross-ice pass for a 4-2 Bruins lead. The Rangers never recovered.
The common thread for the two young blueliners has been playing the same game that earned them their spots in the lineup in the first place.
“Bartkowski was sent down at the end of the regular season, so he could continue to play because we really liked his game,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “Krug’s been a good player for Providence all year, we liked what we saw in him last year and when he was called up. It was just a matter of bringing those guys in, saying, ‘Continue to do the things that you do well, because that will also give you success at this level.’ It’s about giving them the confidence to do that.
“We have to trust that they are good enough in those areas that they’re going to help us out. So far, they’ve proven us right.”
Both have made quite an impression on their veteran teammates. Midseason call-ups are usually afforded a little time to adjust, but Krug and Bartkowski have been expected to produce right away, and they’ve come through.
“Yeah, it’s huge the way they’re stepping up and getting goals,” Marchand said. “The way the young guys have come in and played very, very hard and very strong. … [It’s] very big for us right now and we’re going to need that to continue when we’re in New York.”
A challenging situation is nothing new for Krug. Listed at 5-foot-9, 180 lbs., he might look like a normal human being if you see him on the street, but in hockey, especially among defensemen, he’s undersized. That’s not news to him, of course.
“My whole life, they’ve been telling me I’m too small to play defense,” he said. “When I committed to Michigan State, I heard through the rumor mill that people thought I was undersized; ‘he might be a fifth or sixth defenseman at best,’ so I’ve been fighting that all my life.”
So Krug has instead tried to play smart defense instead of pounding it out with the bigger bodies – “I’m not going to go into the corner and put Boyle on his butt every time I’m in there,” he said – and he’s brought some flash with the puck, providing a puck-moving game that may have no peer among the other Boston defensemen.
That’s his game, just as Bartkowski’s is predicated more on calculated and hard-nosed defensive plays. Both players have played those games with confidence, heeding the message from their coaches and teammates.
“I said [to Krug], ‘You know, I know how good you are, I know what you can bring to this team, just go out there and do it,’ ” Julien said. “I think it’s important, but the last thing you want to do is get those guys to play on their heels or play afraid to make a mistake. Confidence goes a long way in this game.”
And as Boychuk put it, “There’s a reason why they’re here.”