Bortuzzo hopes to leave a winner

by Jonathan Bombulie || AHL On The Beat Archive

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins defenseman Robert Bortuzzo knows now is not the time to get sentimental.

It’s the playoffs. Physicality and intensity are ramped up exponentially. If a player takes time to stop and smell the roses, he will probably get helped off the ice by the trainer.

But the fact remains, there’s a good chance Bortuzzo is about to graduate from the American Hockey League.

He has been a standout shutdown defenseman for the Penguins for the last three years. He’s played 205 regular-season games for the team, more than any other player on the active roster.

But he’ll have to clear waivers next fall, which means Pittsburgh will either have to make room for him on the roster, trade him, or try to sneak him through waivers, at which point he could easily be claimed by another NHL team.

Therefore, as he prepares to face the Hershey Bears in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, the band should probably cue up "Pomp and Circumstance."

"I’ve never looked into things like that," Bortuzzo said after practice Tuesday. "If that happens to be the case, there’s no better way than winning a championship or having a deep playoff run with a great bunch of team guys and a great city that’s treated me real well."

If this is Bortuzzo’s last extended stay in the AHL, it will begin with a tough test.

The Bears have been hit hard by injuries and call-ups and they lost their last eight games of the regular season, but they remain the third-highest scoring team in the league.

They have Chris Bourque, who won the AHL scoring title by 13 points. They have Ryan Potulny, who led the AHL in playoff scoring last spring while playing for Binghamton. They have the league’s top-ranked power play that scores more than 25 percent of the time.

"They’re a fast team with a lot of skill up front," Bortuzzo said. "It’s going to come down to eliminating time and space on some of their talented high-end forwards."

If there’s one thing preparing Bortuzzo for the offense he’s about to face, it’s experience.

The 23-year-old from Thunder Bay, Ontario, is only in his third pro season, but he’s already faced Hershey 27 times. He’s a plus-6 in those games, which is no small feat against such a dynamic offensive team.

"I’ve played against them a lot," Bortuzzo said. "We’re going to do our research and do our studying, but there aren’t going to be too many surprises. It’s just going to be hard hockey. I never got the chance to play in a playoff rivalry with this team my first two years, so I’m excited for it. The atmosphere is going to be great."

The way coach John Hynes sees it, the opportunity for Bortuzzo to continue to grow as a player is great as well.

"He is a huge part of what we do," Hynes said. "He developed here. He started his pro career here. I think he’s a high-character guy and he wants to have success. The development process of his career, he’s playing himself to a point where he should be ready for the National Hockey League.

"But I think it’s not necessarily about him leaving a lasting impression and he’s never going to be back here. I think it’s about, he wants to win. He wants to continue to grow his game and grow his experience deeper and deeper into the playoffs. For any young player, that’s the most important thing they can do for their careers at this point in time."

This story originally appeared in the Citizens’ Voice