A month ago, if you were to ask a Boston Bruins fan his or her opinion on Matt Bartkowski, it was more than likely harsh, hateful, and unflattering.
I first noticed the often over the top bad attitudes towards Bartkowski during the Montreal series, when Bartkowski took a few ill-timed, costly penalties. While the team as a whole didn’t play up to expectations, it seemed that anything Bartkowski did – no matter how minor – was met with less than creative nicknames, critiques with an exasperated force driving them, and more than a handful of trade requests. While fully recognizing the frustrating mistakes he was making, I wondered if the hate he was garnering was well deserved, or if the fanbase simply needed a scapegoat and Bartkowski’s errors made him available to take on that role.
To me, he seemed to rise up to the occasion when Dennis Seidenberg got hurt. Maybe I’m a sucker for the underdog, but I didn’t find myself turning on Bartkowski as quickly as a lot of people did. He looked good when he was called up in 2013, and I chalked the shakiness (while, again, simultaneously being frustrated by his dumb mistakes) up to a rough patch – something seemingly every player goes through at some point or another.
I, like everyone else, didn’t get the chance to see whether or not Bartkowski would improve as the Bruins went further. As you already know, they were knocked out in Game 7 by the Canadiens, and headed into the summer rather quietly. After avoiding arbitration over the summer, Bartkowski was scratched for the first three games of the 2014-15 season, and got off to a rocky start. He was battling his own issues while trying to help out an injury-plagued team, and it was noticeable that his confidence was shot.
“The hardest way to play is the way I’m playing right now, is playing not to make mistakes,” Bartkowski said, following the Bruins’ collapse to the Minnesota Wild. “Once I figure out that – once I put a good shift out there where I just go out and play, the confidence is just going to be there.”
As he struggled to find his footing and his play seemed to be on a decline, Bartkowski found himself to be the healthy scratch again: this time, for seven straight games – a benching whose purpose was to send the young defenseman a message.
“We just know he’s good enough when he’s on top of his game to be a good player for us,” Head coach Claude Julien said. “So he dug himself a hole, and now he’s got to dig himself out of it, and it starts in practice.”
And Bartkowski has been doing just that. He returned to the lineup on Saturday versus Carolina and played a solid game; his mistakes weren’t as glaringly obvious as they had been before, and his teammates didn’t have to bail him out as often as we were used to seeing.
Bartkowski didn’t take his benching to heart; he knew he was becoming a liability on the ice and was struggling to make small improvements. He quietly went about his business, practicing hard and trying to work his way back into the lineup.
The hard work seemed to pay off in last night’s game against the St. Louis Blues. It seemed like every time Bartkowski stepped on to the ice, he was playing to his full potential and used his skating to his advantage. In his 20:52 of ice time, Bartkowski finally looked like he belonged on an NHL roster.
His newfound confidence shined brightly in the first period, when a behind the net pass from Krug found it’s way to Bartkowski’s stick. Rather than panicking, he used his speed to his advantage, finding a clear passing lane to Matt Fraser, whose aggressive forecheck resulted in Patrice Bergeron netting the B’s first goal of the night. In October, Bartkowski might not have made that play, and – as has happened in the past– it could have proved costly for the Bruins.
Despite the second and third periods usually being shaky for the Bruins, Bartkowski continued to showcase what he is capable of. Faking a slapshot, he sent the puck to Torey Krug, who promptly sailed it past Elliot – giving Bartkowski his first assist of the year. Later on in the second, Bartkowski negated a scoring opportunity for the Blues, diving to chip away the puck from the stick of Vladimir Tarasenko.
“I’m just playing my game,” Bartkowski said, following the game. “When things weren’t going, it was just a shift away, a little confidence. Now I’ve got that back. So now it’s just playing hockey.”
With Adam McQuaid out 6-8 weeks with a broken thumb, Bartkowski’s cemented place in the lineup isn’t that far out of the realm of possibility. He’s found his footing as of late, but it is essential to his playing time – and quite possibly, his career here in Boston – that he keeps it consistent and proves that he is worthy of a spot in the lineup.
If the hunger, intensity and smart playmaking stay as concrete pillars of his game, “Bad Luck Bart” could be a thing of the past.