When asked Thursday what he learned from last postseason, Matt Bartkowski brought up an expression that Providence coach Bruce Cassidy tells his players.
“If you don’t bring your A game,” Bartkowski said, “you’ve got to bring your B game.”
That might not fit any player better than it does Bartkowski. Ups and downs and ins and outs are pretty much all he knows at the NHL level. Getting into the Bruins’ lineup has been tough, and when he’s played he’s been the ultimate trick-or-treat player. Now the Bruins might need him again.
Defense has arguably been the Bruins’ biggest need all season, and that was before the B’s lost Kevan Miller to season-ending shoulder surgery. After serving as a healthy scratch for a month and a half (17 straight games), Bartkowski was given a game against Calgary during the Bruins’ recent road trip and stuck in the lineup after Miller went down.
A trade (or a callup of Joe Morrow) could change things, but for now Bartkowski finds himself in a similar situation as last season. He could be in line to play a top-four role down the stretch, as he did last season when Dennis Seidenberg went down in late December and the Bruins couldn’t adequately replace him via trade. Perhaps because the Bruins would rather Torey Krug stay on the third pairing, Bartkowski is almost always used as a top-four player when he is in the lineup.
While an upgrade to Boston’s second pairing (Bartkowski-Seidenberg) is needed for the Bruins to make a deep run, Bartkowski’s last few games have suggested he’ll fare better in the spot than he did earlier in the season, when he and Seidenberg turned in some especially ugly games, including one in which Bartkowski’s positioning cost the B’s a game against the Avalanche in the final second on a Daniel Briere goal.
It’s odd that Bartkowski has looked fine after not playing for a month given that he was a disaster at the beginning of the season, when one would thing he would be physically sharper. Bartkowski himself finds it puzzling, but his priority is keeping his play where it is.b
“To start the year, I wasn’t playing well at all, and then when I got in right before the California swing, I started to play well, and then out again,” he said. “I don’t know. It just came around. I’m playing like myself again.”
Claude Julien said that while Bartkowski was out of the lineup, the team had him fine-tune things that have left him better equipped now than he was before. Asked what specifically, Julien replied ‘a lot of everything.’
“A lot in all different areas. Sometimes you know you’re a natural skater, which I think he is, and you think you can get away with that,” Julien said.”But it takes a little bit more than that. You’ve got to be prepared as a player. Are you mentally prepared to make plays? Are you ready to put the time in? To be in good shape is one thing; to be in great shape is another.”
Bartkowski’s experience in this role ended the wrong way last year. After Andrej Meszaros was brought in to challenge him, Bartkowski got sick and missed the beginning of the playoffs. When he came back, he was off his game. Meszaros wasn’t any better, and the Bruins were forced into a rotation of struggling defensemen playing important games.
“It was just more inconsistent in the playoffs,” he recalled. “There was like a good [game], a really bad one, a good one, a really bad one. That just can’t happen again.”
The next few days will say a lot about what Bartkowski’s role with the Bruins will be going forward, assuming he isn’t traded. Forcing their seventh defenseman to play big minutes hurt the team last season, but if it happens again, Bartkowski thinks that with health and improved play, he can handle the job.
“This year, I’m gonna hold my spot,” Bartkowski said. “I want to stay consistent. I don’t want to have any dips at all.”
That’s the right attitude to have, but it’s always been easier said than done with Bartkowski and the Bruins.