Sure, Matt Bartkowski visited his parents Friday. No, he didn’t sleep in his old room that night.
Bartkowski was in town on a business trip of sorts, but he was required by his employer to sleep in a particular room at a particular hotel in downtown Pittsburgh. So even if he had been overcome with nostalgia, he still would have had to say goodbye for the evening to his parents, Beth and Rick, and leave the Summer Place house where he grew up.
That was OK. Bartkowski, a 2006 Mt. Lebanon High School graduate, was happy to rejoin his, uh, business associates — otherwise known as the Boston Bruins NHL team. They had a date Saturday afternoon with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Bartkowski, a 6-foot-1, 196-pound defenseman, had a contingent of family and friends watching as the Bruins shut out the team Bartkowski grew up following, 2-0.
“It’s always special to be able to play in your hometown in front of friends and family — and most of them are able to come to the games,” he says. “It’s a good feeling to know that they’re there, especially your parents because they’re the ones that you grow up and they drive you to the rink every day. It’s nice for them to be able to see you on the big stage.”
This wasn’t the first time Bartkowski played at Consol Energy Center. He made his NHL debut there Jan. 10, 2011 against the Penguins. His first three games in hockey’s major league were against Pittsburgh that season, two of them in Boston, and he has played eight of his 118 NHL games against the Penguins.
Bartkowski had no points, two shots and two hits in 20:09 of ice time (third-most on the team) Saturday in Boston’s fifth win in a row. And that was the second thrill of the day. The first came when the team bus had to turn a trip to the arena that should have been a matter of blocks into an excursion because of the St. Patrick’s Day parade downtown.
“We had to go, I don’t even know … it looked like we were going out towards Harmarville and then we came back around and cut around,” Bartkowski says, laughing. “It was weird.”
That might be said of Bartkowski’s 2014-15 season, too.
After he bounced some between the NHL and the minor-league American Hockey League his first three pro seasons, last season was his first as a full-time NHLer – also a first for a Mt. Lebanon native. He played in 64 of Boston’s 82 games, with 18 assists, and then another eight games in the playoffs, with one assist.
This season, things have been up and down. Bartkowski, 26, has played in just 34 of Boston’s 70 games, and they have come in streaks when he has played in several games in a row and been a healthy scratch from the lineup for several games in a row.
His longest idle stretch was 17 games from early January to mid-February. Since then, he has played in the past 14 games in a row.
“He’s been a victim sometimes of circumstances. He knows that,” Boston Coach Claude Julien says. “But at the same time, the one thing I think he’s done this year is really mature as a professional player on and off the ice. He’s a hard worker. He’s really preparing well for games now. He’s made some great progress. He’s got such a big upside that it was important for us to be patient with him and to work with him, and he’s responded well. He’s being rewarded for it right now.”
Rather than sulk, Bartkowski doubled down when he was out of the lineup, and that helped make for seamless returns when he got back in.
“Physically or anything, I’ve felt like I haven’t missed a beat,” he says, adding that while he sat out for games at a time, “I just focused on off-ice workouts and making sure I stayed in shape, just being the best I could in practice because that was pretty much my game. Mainly just staying ready for the opportunity when it arises. And finally it has. “Now I’m playing, and we’re winning games, so it’s great.”
Bartkowski has a steady veteran defense partner in Dennis Seidenberg.
One thing missing from Bartkowski’s NHL resume is a regular-season goal (he has scored one in the playoffs). Scoring has never been his bread and butter. Being defensively sound trumps goals for him.
He has never had more than six goals in a season since leaving Mt. Lebanon High School, and the six-pack came during his second and final college season at Ohio State. Between those two stops, he spent two years in the junior USHL playing for Lincoln, Neb.
Bartkowski laughed loudly when asked about netting one in the NHL. “Honestly, I just want to get it so everybody quits bothering me,” he says. “I don’t even really worry about it that much.”
Of greater importance is helping Boston solidify a playoff spot and aim for a lengthy run in the postseason. The Bruins’ winning streak was snapped Sunday night in a 2-0 loss at Washington, but they are hanging onto a wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Bruins have 13 regular-season games remaining. None are against the Penguins, although a playoff matchup is certainly not out of the realm of possibility. If that’s the case, Bartkowski can make a few more stops at home during his version of business trips to Pittsburgh. “It’s always nice to be at home,” says Bartkowski, who hopes he is a role model for aspiring hockey players in Mt. Lebanon.
“It means a lot. I grew up in Mt. Lebanon. It’s dear to my heart. At least for the kids there, it’s good to have somebody go on and do well. I love hockey in Pittsburgh. I love seeing kids do well. It’s good on many levels.”