PITTSBURGH - Paired with The Piece, could Penguins defenseman Robert Bortuzzo become The Answer?
OK, maybe that's getting carried away.
After all, Bortuzzo has played just two career playoff games.
But his performance while replacing the injured Brooks Orpik on the Penguins' blue line for Game 5 against Columbus has coincided with what coach Dan Bylsma called “the best games we've played all year long.”
Two wins. Four goals allowed. Zero blown leads.
“I've always had confidence in my ability to play at this level,” Bortuzzo said. “Obviously, I hadn't played in a playoff game before, but guys prepared me for that and tried to tell me it was not too different.
“The biggest part was contributing to a couple wins.”
Two wins that advanced the Penguins to a Stanley Cup second-round series with the New York Rangers that will start Friday at Consol Energy Center.
The Penguins practiced Wednesday and Thursday, and Bortuzzo spent the bulk of the time alongside Rob Scuderi, who earned his unique nickname during an interview mixup when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009.
“He adds a physical element and an attitude,” Scuderi said of Bortuzzo. “The way he plays, he's aggressive. After losing Brooks and losing that element to our defense, it's nice to have it replaced somewhat with (Bortuzzo's) ability to play that way.”
Orpik has not returned to the lineup since leaving a practice at Southpointe last Friday less than halfway through.
Playing physical, much like Orpik, is not a foreign concept to Bortuzzo, who ranked fifth on the Penguins with 137 hits in 54 regular season games.
His per-game average of 2.5 hits ranked third behind only forward Tanner Glass and Orpik.
Little changed in two postseason games, as Bortuzzo finished with four hits, blocked three shots and was a plus-1 while averaging 13 minutes of ice time on 20 shifts against the Blue Jackets.
Not bad for someone who had been scratched for two weeks following a 4-3 loss to the Flyers on April 12, the byproduct of defenseman Kris Letang's return from a stroke.
“I consider myself pretty intense on the ice to begin with. That wasn't too much of an issue,” said Bortuzzo, who does some of his best work getting under an opponent's skin. “I just wanted to keep my execution at a high level. I had been out of hockey for a couple weeks there. Jumping into a team that plays at a high execution level, I felt like I was able to do that.”
Bortuzzo did not commit a turnover during his two games against Columbus. Further, his steady play enabled defenseman Paul Martin to work with Letang, whose game flourished as a result.
“Getting in that shutdown pair with Paul elevated (Letang's) game,” Bylsma said.
Following a regular season that saw the Penguins rack up 109 points and win the Metropolitan Division title despite losing a league-high 529 man-games to injury, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the loss of Orpik has been addressed so smoothly.
“Robert Bortuzzo had been a shutdown guy in a large number of games,” Bylsma said. “So to toss him into a playoff game in the absence of Brooks Orpik, he's a guy who's been doing that for us a lot this year.”
(Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.)