On the opening shift of the third period in Game 2 Sunday, the Rangers rimmed the puck around the wall in the Boston zone. New York center Derek Stepan was positioned against the boards to corral the rim.
Stepan never settled the puck. Matt Bartkowski made sure of that.
The Bruins defenseman wheeled around the net, sealed off the wall, and engaged Stepan in a puck battle. Bartkowski pushed the puck forward to Patrice Bergeron. Seconds later, Bergeron fed Brad Marchand for the back-breaking strike at 0:26 of the period, giving the Bruins a 4-2 lead.
“I just saw that I could meet the puck there,” Bartkowski said. “He wasn’t going to be able to gain control. I knew if I just flew in there, put a little body on him, and get a stick in there, it would probably poke free and get out of the zone.
“Couldn’t have been better. It went right to Bergy.”
It was the type of decisive, confident play that will make Bartkowski practically impossible to extricate from the lineup.
Of the three blue line boys (along with Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton), Bartkowski is lobbying the loudest to remain in uniform even if Dennis Seidenberg and Wade Redden get healthy. Through two games of this second-round series, Bartkowski has been Boston’s No. 3 defenseman after Zdeno Chara and Johnny Boychuk.
Bartkowski is the Bruins’ version of Ryan McDonagh — a mobile, left-shot defenseman who is sound and mean defensively and rushes the puck out of the defensive zone.
The Bruins always believed Bartkowski, 24, had such assets, but for three straight seasons, including this one in Providence, he showed too little of his skill set to impress his bosses.
“This year at training camp with Providence, he was not a very good player. We could see that,” said coach Claude Julien. “It was disappointing for us to see that because we could see the potential.
“But once you see what he becomes and how much better he was after the first month, that’s when you see the real Bartkowski. He continues to get better. He’s a young player.”
On Monday at TD Garden, Seidenberg and Redden practiced alongside their teammates. Both traveled with the team to New York, where the Bruins will play Game 3 Tuesday night, but neither is being asked to rush his return.
Through two games, Bartkowski, Krug, and Hamilton have done little to make the veterans’ absences pronounced. Bartkowski is playing regular shifts against second-liners Stepan, Carl Hagelin, and Ryan Callahan. Krug has a goal in each game while pushing the pace in his third-pairing role. Hamilton has taken shifts alongside Chara against New York’s No. 1 line of Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard, and Rick Nash.
In Monday’s practice, the three pairs remained the same: Chara with Hamilton, Bartkowski with Boychuk, and Krug with Adam McQuaid. After two playoff wins, coaches would think twice about changing their pairings, much less their lineup.
Monday marked Redden’s second full practice; his first was Saturday. Redden has not played in the Rangers series. He also missed Games 5 and 7 against Toronto because of his undisclosed injury.
Redden was able to do more in Monday’s practice than in Saturday’s session. He skated with Aaron Johnson on the spare tandem.
If Redden plays in either Game 3 or 4, it would mark his return to Madison Square Garden. The ex-Ranger did not make many friends among the MSG faithful.
The Rangers signed Redden to an ill-advised six-year, $39 million contract on July 1, 2008. Redden lasted two years in Manhattan before the Rangers buried him in the AHL. The Rangers bought out Redden’s contract upon the lockout’s conclusion.
“It won’t be a warm reception, you could put it that way,” Redden said with a smile. “I’m not too worried about it.”
Even if Redden is at full health, it would be difficult to dress the veteran over Krug. Krug is quicker and can skate the puck out of trouble. Krug has been the team’s most dynamic defenseman in the offensive zone, and he is playing with swagger.
“I’ve always found Torey to have lots of confidence,” Julien said. “Even last year, he came right out of college and played the last two games with us. You could see the confidence. This guy was not rattled by the level or by who he was playing against.”
The tougher decision is who might sit when Seidenberg is ready. Game 4 Thursday might be a likelier possibility for Seidenberg than Game 3. He was the only defenseman not to participate in four-on-four drills in practice.
Hamilton could be the odd man out when Seidenberg is healthy. The Bruins could reunite Chara and Seidenberg to play against Nash, who found his pace in Game 2 (goal, four shots in 22:23 of ice time). Bartkowski and Boychuk would remain as the second pair. Krug and McQuaid would stick as the No. 3 duo.
“The best thing to do is to cross that bridge when you get to it,” said Julien. “When that time comes, whether it’s tomorrow morning or whatever, I’ll be ready to make that decision. That’s what they want me to do as a coach.”