The Boston defense faced two different tests in Monday’s matinee against the Tampa Bay Lightning. First, there was the question of how the defense would fare against the most potent offense this season in the East. Then, there was the matter of how young defenseman Matt Bartkowski would look filling in for the injured Adam McQuaid.
Judging by the Bruins’ 3-0 win, the Bruins D-corps proved it was up to the task for both challenges.
The Bruins defense seems to be at its best this season when facing the Lightning. Although Tampa Bay entered the game leading the East with a 3.25 goal-per-game average, they have scored only one goal total against the Bruins in the three games between the clubs this year.
Coach Claude Julien declined to draw any connections between the three wins, chalking each victory up to separate circumstances, but he noted solid team defense was a key to Monday afternoon’s game.
“That’s what I liked about our team tonight,” Julien said. “Our energy level was high, our alertness, our anticipation. Our back pressure was probably as good tonight as it’s been all year.”
The Bruins controlled possession for the majority of the game, and Tuukka Rask turned in a solid performance by making big saves on a couple of Bruins turnovers out front, including a key stop on a Reilly Smith turnover in front of the net when the game was still tied, 0-0, in the second period.
“It really all had to do with us and how we managed the puck and our positioning defensively,” Bartkowski said about slowing down the Tampa offense. “They’re fast enough that if we get out of position they’re going to take advantage of it. And we saw that a few times throughout the game, but Tuukka cleaned it up. So we just really focused on playing well in position and managing the puck.”
It was of extra importance that Bartkowski played well in Monday’s game, because in a season in which Julien has already proven no defenseman is safe from becoming a healthy scratch, any playing time for Bartkowski becomes a window of opportunity to earn even more ice time.
The 25-year-old blue-liner played in four games prior to Monday afternoon’s tilt against the Lightning, and the results were underwhelming. Bartkowski was not a major weakness on the ice, but his minus-3 rating over those four games showed he was not a benefit to the team either.
But on Monday, Bartkowski looked good for someone who played in just one of the team’s last 10 games. He committed no major errors in his own end, and although he was somewhat slow with the puck in the offensive zone, he managed to earn a secondary assist on Daniel Paille’s second-period goal thanks to his work along the boards in his own end.
“Matt really did a great job to fill up the spot and use his part of the game that he’s really strong at, which is really moving the puck and skating up to the play and making strong plays offensively,” said defenseman Zdeno Chara. “I thought it was a really good, strong game by him.”
Bartkowski likely won’t be a regular in the lineup once McQuaid is healthy, but if he can continue to play a solid game in spot starts like the one he received Monday, he could become a regular on an NHL roster for the first time in his career.
And although Bartkowski said he is not 100 percent comfortable on the ice yet, his coach seemed happy enough with his performance to let him stay put for now.
“I thought he played well tonight for his first game back in a long time,” Julien said. “So I don’t know if it’s adjustment more than he’s practiced hard and he’s worked hard. And because of that he’s able to step into our lineup and play the way he did tonight.”