Forced into action by injuries, the two were scooped up from the Triple-A Providence Bruins and thrust into playing big minutes, which have yielded even bigger results. Bartkowski, averaging about 20 minutes a night, scored a goal in the Game 7 win over the Leafs and has added an assist against the Blue Shirts for two points in six games, while the lesser-known Krug, with a rapidly growing legend, is a point-per-game player with three goals and an assist, as he’s averaged roughly 16 minutes in his four contests. It would seem the only thing standing in their way is the health of Dennis Seidenberg and Andrew Ference.
Without the dynamic duo, their P-Bruins suffered the same tragic collapse on Wednesday night as their parent club three seasons ago. Providence grabbed a commanding 3-0 series advantage on Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before the Penguins rallied to become the third American Hockey League club to successfully overcome such a deficit.
The junior Bruins’ loss has been the senior Bruins’ gain, causing many to wonder why and how Bartkowski, 24, and Krug, 22, are playing so well and if that boils down even partially to team strategy.
Below, we’re enlightened by P-Bruins second-year head coach Bruce Cassidy, the team’s assistant for the prior three years.
How do the systems between Boston and Providence differ, particularly as it concerns the defensemen?
“Away from the puck, defensively, they’re exactly the same. When I took the head job, I sat down that summer with [Bruins general manager] Peter Chiarelli, [assistant general manager] Don Sweeney and with [head coach] Claude [Julien]’s input as well about getting aligned. I noticed there were some differences when players went up so we talked about getting a similar structure away from the puck. How you break out, how you get back, how you defend in the neutral zone reading rushes. Defensive zone coverage is the same.
“But, with the puck, we’ve changed it a little bit in terms of our pace. I don’t think it’s anything system-wise; we just encourage our guys to transition quick. Any turnover, any kind of regroup, we try to go quick. We don’t always go D-to-D, make a play, and go back to the defenseman. We get going and try to play fast before the other team sets their defense.
“I don’t know if that’s different in Boston, I just know that’s how we play. Some of it is the personality of the players. We don’t have [Zdeno] Chara, Adam [McQuaid] or [Johnny] Boychuk. We have smaller, quicker guys who have to play to their strengths, so we’ve evolved into that.”
We’ve seen a lot from Bartkowski and Krug jumping up in the play and getting involved offensively for Boston. Would you say there’s more of that in Providence?
“I think there is, simply because of the makeup of the players. You get Torey Krug; he’s a 5-9 defenseman who comes out of college as an offensive-minded guy, so we can’t turn him into a big, stay-back D. He’s got to defend and play well, but his top assets are his puck skills and his ability to move his feet and see the ice. Bart skates so well in a straight line that any time he can play fast and put the defense on its heels, we’re just playing to their strengths. Adam McQuaid’s not capable of doing what some of these guys can do, but Adam’s a better shot-blocker, defensive-defenseman, toughness role. It’s what we have, so it’s the way we play.
“As a coach, you can’t get guys to do everything. There’s not enough time, so we encourage quicker transitions and playing fast. I’m not in meetings in Boston so I don’t know if they encourage more setting up in the neutral zone, getting to their spots and running certain plays before they get moving, whereas we read off the puck carrier from our spots and get ready to go quick.
“I know a lot of people are saying, ‘Why don’t they play quicker?’ Well one reason Bart and Krug do is because it’s one of their best strengths as good skaters and puck-movers. Claude’s got them doing the same thing. It’s been inbred here and they’re taking it up there and being allowed to do it.”
As someone who’s been around Bartkowski and Krug virtually every day this season, what’s your perception of how they’ve played in Boston so far?
“I think with Bart, I’m not surprised. He’s had chances [20 regular season games since 2010] and maybe he wasn’t ready his first time around to play big minutes, but he turned the corner in the Toronto game almost out of necessity. Sometimes that’s how you find out about players – you just gotta throw them in there. That’s what happened because of the injuries and I think he earned the trust of his teammates, coaches and himself a little bit. With him being a third-year guy, I figured at some point that would be his evolution, he’d get his chance, though I couldn’t have predicted it would be in a Game 7 in the playoffs. It just worked out that way. He’s paid his dues, improved, cleaned up areas he needed to get better in, he’s been more proactive from the puck-drop, and he’s just matured.
“With Krug, no, I didn’t expect him to go up and sort of pick up right where he left off in Providence, joining the rush and having so much confidence with the puck. That’s just something that some guys have and some guys don’t, being able to take advantage of what for him is really his first real opportunity [aside from three regular season games]. He’s taken the bull by the horns, and you just don’t see that coming until they get up there.
“Part of it is that the puck has followed him. As an offensive-defenseman, you’re gonna have games where the situations don’t set up, you’re supporting the rush but the puck never finds you. It’s just good that it’s found him because he can make high-skill plays, and the games have played out well for his skill-set. At some point, though, like any other offensive player, the puck stops bouncing your way and you’ve got to be able to play your game and still contribute and that may be the test for him. Down the road, who knows? But it sure looks like he can handle the physical part of it.”
It’s obviously a small sample size, but are these guys potentially setting themselves up to be in the NHL next year?
“It’ll probably be discussed the more they play in the playoffs. That’s how guys find their way into the lineup, by taking advantage of an opportunity. If they can do it in May, you assume they can do it in September and October. But, yeah, there are a lot of examples of guys who go up, things go well for them, and then the next training camp starts and it’s a different animal. No one can predict the future.”
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Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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