Task gets taller for Bruins rookies

WILMINGTON, Mass. -- Boston Bruins rookie defensemen Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski both made their NHL debuts against the Pittsburgh Penguins. But the regular-season Pittsburgh Penguins are a much different team from the Stanley Cup playoff version the Bruins will face in the Eastern Conference finals.

The potent Penguins offense will present challenges for the Bruins, especially for the young defensemen. As Bruins coach Claude Julien and his staff prepare for the Penguins, their focus will be on how to best match up against the Penguins in the first two games of the series at Consol Energy Center.

"It's going to be challenging," Bruins captain Zdeno Chara said. "It's a big motivation."

During Wednesday's practice at Ristuccia Arena, Julien had his defensive pairs mixing and matching. If Julien decides to separate the team's top pair of Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, which is considered one of the most effective shutdown pairs in the league, he has a few options.

Seidenberg said the team's ability to seamlessly switch its pairings is important.

"It would be tough if you change pairs and you don't get along with the other guy that you play with," he said, "but because we do it so much during the regular season, we don't have a problem usually and that's a nice thing to have."

For the majority of practice, Chara was paired with Johnny Boychuk, while Seidenberg and Bartkowski played together. The final pairing was Krug and Adam McQuaid.

Another factor for Julien to consider before the puck drops for Game 1 on Saturday is whether to insert veteran blueliner Andrew Ference into the mix. Ference has been sidelined since Game 5 of the first-round series against the Maple Leafs with a lower-body injury. He has been practicing and could be ready for the start of the series against the Penguins.

Either way, the Bruins' ability to switch defensive pairings has been an advantage for the past few seasons.

"We've been dealing with that pretty much the whole season," Chara said. "We're used to playing with everybody and we've shuffled different pairs in different games. Sometimes it was due to injuries or the way we want to do some matchups, so we're used to it.

"We just have to do our job as a unit of five on the ice. It's always a little bit easier when you're working together as a unit of five people."

Krug has become a sensation in Boston. His youthful spark helped the Bruins dispatch the New York Rangers in five games. The 22-year-old rookie scored four goals in five games, and the one game he didn't score in probably was his best overall. He has been an asset at both ends of the ice, but realizes the Penguins will present more challenges than the Rangers did.

"I can't make any mistakes," Krug said. "A team of this offensive caliber, if you're out of position and making mistakes with the puck or not going back hard enough, they're going to catch you. I've got to be on top of my game and just keep trying to contribute."

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma will have the advantage in the first two games of having the last change on home ice. He'll want to keep star forward Sidney Crosby away from Chara as much as possible. That means Krug should be ready for No. 87 and the rest of Pittsburgh's potent offense.

"Obviously we all know what they bring to the table," Krug said. "We are very aware of that, I think everyone around is aware of that, so we just have to focus on ourselves and take care of business the way we usually do."

Along with Krug, Bartkowski needs to be particularly aware of what Crosby can do on the ice. Bartkowski, 24, has more NHL experience than Krug and he also understands he needs to bring a physical element in order to help the Bruins beat Pittsburgh.

"Just making sure you're hard on the puck and playing as physical as you can in every situation," Bartkowski said. "Don't get out of position, but just play as physical as you can."

Fortunately for the Bruins, Krug and Bartkowski already have had a crash course on playing against Crosby and the Penguins.

Krug made his NHL debut against Pittsburgh on April 3, 2012, at TD Garden and remembers that game vividly for many reasons. At one point, Krug was the only thing standing in the way of a quality scoring chance for Crosby.

"I had a one-on-one with Crosby, so I got all the butterflies out of the way. There's no room for that anymore," Krug said. "It's time to come ready to play."

When asked what the end result on that play with Crosby was, Krug said, "I think he actually curled up, believe it or not."

Crosby finished the game with a pair of goals and one assist to help Pittsburgh to a 5-3 win. But when asked how he would defend the world-class Crosby, Krug seemed confident that he can continue to play the way he did against the Rangers.

"I don't think I'm going to change my game," Krug said. "The more I play in the offensive zone, it means the less defense I have to play. As far as that's concerned, I'm going to try to keep pushing the pace and the more we play with the puck is the more they don't have the puck. I'm going to try my best to do that.

"It's important to be proactive. You want to take control of the puck, take control of the game and when you're doing that you're not letting the little things get to you. You might make a little mistake, you just shrug that off your shoulders. If you're not doing that then those things will get to you and that's really going to bog your game down."

Bartkowski made his NHL debut on Jan. 10, 2011, in his hometown of Pittsburgh. He played 12 shifts for a total of 9:53 of ice time against the Penguins. He has played a total of four games against Pittsburgh in his brief NHL career.

Chara and Seidenberg have a wealth of experience playing against Crosby and teammate Evgeni Malkin. Krug's teammates will share some advice, but they basically want him to do only one thing.

"I think he should just play his game," Seidenberg said. "I'm sure the coaches will let him know if he's too offensive or playing too risky. But he's played his game and has made solid decisions all series long and I don't see a reason why he should change."

In the small sample size, Krug has shown he's not intimidated by anything at this level. The majority of players are bigger than he is, but he uses his generously listed 5-foot-9, 180-pound frame to his advantage.

Similar to the way he played in his first five Stanley Cup playoff games, Krug can't hold back despite facing the top offensive team in the NHL.

"Personally, I have to keep playing with the same confidence, and I think our team does too," Krug said.