Matt Bartkowski couldn’t have planned it any better.
The Pittsburgh native and Bruins defenseman – who grew up idolizing Mario Lemieux – played in his first-ever National Hockey League game Monday night in his hometown, in the house that Lemieux built.
“It was a special feeling being able to play here,” said Bartkowski in the visitors locker room at CONSOL Energy Center. “It was a fun game.”
His Bruins defeated the Penguins, 4-2, and as if that wasn’t enough, he played his first-ever shift in the NHL paired up with former Norris Trophy (best defenseman) winner Zdeno Chara.
“I was a little nervous at first, but I settled in by the third period,” Bartkowski said.
In this night of firsts for Bartkowski, he threw his first hit and notched the first two penalty minutes of his career through 9:53 minutes of ice time.
Bartkowski graduated from Mt. Lebanon High School, where he captained the Blue Devils to an undefeated season and a Pennsylvania Cup championship as a senior in 2006. The game was played in Mellon Arena, the Penguins’ former home.
On Monday night, things came full circle for Bartkowski as he made his debut in the Penguins’ new home.
Before the game, Bartkowski talked about how it was the Penguins who inspired him to take to the ice in the first place, citing the two Stanley Cup championships in the early 1990s as motivation to lace up.
Bartkowski said he turned his phone off during the day to try to stay focused for the game, but he admitted that once he hit the ice, he allowed himself to take it all in.
“But after that, I was just playing the game,” he said.
It’s not often that a player’s first game involves playing in your hometown against your boyhood team, a fact that wasn’t lost on Bartkowski.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “I don’t know if you could dream it any other way.”