Boston Bruins’ Matt Bartkowski another victory for Pittsburgh hockey


May 13, 2013; Boston, MA USA; Boston Bruins defenseman Matt Bartkowski (43) checks Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Joffrey Lupul (19) along the boards during the first period in game seven of the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a tremendous 2013 for Pittsburgh hockey, even if you leave the Penguins completely out of the picture.

Just as the calendar page turned to January, four Pittsburgh-trained players contributed significantly to the United States’ first-place finish in the World Junior Championship. Forwards Vince Trocheck (Upper St. Clair), Riley Barber (Washington, Pa.) and J.T. Miller (Coraopolis/East Palestine, Ohio) joined goalie John Gibson (Whitehall) on the team that claimed the country’s fourth-ever gold medal at the prestigious tournament for the world’s best under 20 years old.

A couple of weeks later, Gibsonia’s Brandon Saad claimed a spot on the Chicago Blackhawks roster when the NHL season finally got going. The speedy 20-year-old winger quickly latched onto the Blackhawks’ top forward line alongside Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa and established himself as a top rookie of the year candidate for the President’s Trophy winners.

As winter turned to spring, college hockey’s best came to Consol Energy Center for the NCAA Frozen Four, which was hosted by Robert Morris University and the Penguins. Yale went on to grab the Division I men’s hockey title, helped along by junior center and Mt. Lebanon native Jesse Root.

Speaking of RMU, coach Derek Schooley’s men’s program came as close as it ever has to qualifying for the 16-team NCAA tournament. The Colonials posted a 20-14-4 record and advanced to the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Hockey Association playoffs, but just missed out on an at-large NCAA berth.

May 3, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks left wing Brandon Saad (20) shoots the puck against the Minnesota Wild during the first period in game two of the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

Despite that, the national reputation of RMU hockey has never been better, boosted by its victories over Penn State and Miami (Ohio) in the inaugural Three Rivers Classic held between Christmas and New Year’s at Consol Energy Center.

Trocheck kept the Pittsburgh hockey momentum going in April when he was named the Ontario Hockey League player of the year. The 2011 draft pick of the Florida Panthers put up 50 goals and 59 assists in 63 regular-season games for Saginaw and Plymouth.Finally, Gibson took over as Team USA’s starting netminder in the recently completed IIHF Men’s World Championship. The 19-year-old Anaheim Ducks prospect performed superbly as the Stars & Stripes brought home the bronze medal, its first top-three finish since another bronze in 2004.

Local hockey fans can be excused if they missed out on Gibson’s latest exploits while the Penguins have advanced to the Eastern Conference final for the first time in four years. However, Pittsburgh’s growing influence in elite hockey development cannot be ignored, and it’s on display in the Pens’ latest playoff opponent.

The Boston Bruins have had to turn to youth on their blueline as veterans Andrew Ference and Wade Redden suffered injuries during their postseason run. While former Michigan State star Torey Krug (four goals in five playoffs games) has been a phenomenon in Boston, Matt Bartkowski of Mt. Lebanon has also been an astute newbie on defense.

The 24-year-old former Panthers draft pick has spent most of his last two years with Providence of the AHL, but Bartkowski burst on the NHL playoff scene with a goal in Game 7 of the first round against Toronto.

Those heroics aside, Bartkowski is more of a low-key player than Krug. He’ll certainly be expected to focus on containing the powerful Penguins attack much more than chipping in at the offensive end. In recent Bruins practices, the 6-foot-1 Bartkowski has been paired with 31-year-old Dennis Seidenberg on Boston’s No. 2 defense pairing.

Bartkowski grew up rooting for the Penguins, which featured current teammate Jaromir Jagr during Bartkowski’s childhood. His situation must seem surreal, even as the continued emergence of Pittsburgh-raised hockey players has become the new normal.