MONTREAL — When the season started the talk was of the defensive rotation. Who would be in? Who would be out? And for the first 16 games, that was an issue. Matt Bartkowski sat for the first three games, played three, then settled into the press box for nine of the next 10.
Then Adam McQuaid got injured. And since then, Bartkowski really hasn’t had to worry. He has been a consistent presence in the lineup, an improving, maturing player, usually alongside Johnny Boychuk, sitting for just three of the following 48 games.
But with the addition of Andrej Meszaros, the Bruins again have a surplus of defensemen. So far coach Claude Julien has opted to sit Dougie Hamilton against Florida and Montreal — both victories — to get Meszaros into the lineup. Bartkowski has been safe.
“I wasn’t playing as well as I can,” Bartkowski said of earlier in the season. “I just wasn’t playing my game. And then the stretch before the Olympic break and leading up to that, I got better as it went on. Probably 15 games before the break I was almost where I needed to be, and now I’m where I need to be. I can bring my game.”
Asked why he wasn’t playing the way he wanted, Bartkowski said, “I think most of the season was more just a mental thing.”
Part of that was the uncertainty, especially early on. It’s something Bartkowski has often dealt with in previous seasons when he hadn’t been established and has had to spend time shuttling between Boston and Providence.
It was the same way that this started, with unknowns.
“It’s just uncertainty,” said Bartkowski, who led the Bruins with 23:24 of ice time and collected five blocked shots, three hits, and an assist in Wednesday’s 4-1 win over the Canadiens. “As much as you say you can’t let it creep into your mind, I think that almost everyone does at some point or another. What’s going to happen tomorrow? Did I play well enough last night? You know when you play well; you know what you have to do. It’s just that uncertainty.”
While Hamilton has been the odd man out, that doesn’t mean it will stay that way. In fact, Julien was clear that Hamilton will not sit for long as he works out the best way to shuffle his defense. That could mean Bartkowski is a healthy scratch at some point.
“I think it should motivate all of us,” Bartkowski said of the competition among the defensemen.
In his first full NHL season, Bartkowski said he has seen a progression in himself and his game. He can’t pinpoint how the mental aspect has evolved, but said, “I don’t know if you want to call it confidence or whatever you want to call it.”
Whatever it is, Bartkowski can now rely on his instincts. He doesn’t second guess himself or worry about the minor mistakes that previously might cost him playing time. He just makes the play.
“You start putting too much pressure on yourself, stuff gets in the back of your head, you start trying to do things that you shouldn’t,” he said. “So far it’s worked till now. It’s just playing our games and as a whole, as a team, it’s been pretty good for us.’’
Meszaros led the Bruins in shots in his first game with the team, landing six against the Panthers Sunday. He scored on a shot from the point that got past Roberto Luongo.
Asked whether that can be expected regularly from his new defenseman, Julien said, “I don’t know how much I’m going to focus on Meszaros being the lone shooter. I think I want to get shots from the point from everybody, but it’s more about playing your game.”
Daniel Paille participated in morning skate, though he was a scratch for Wednesday’s game. He is unlikely to play Thursday against the Coyotes, but could return for Saturday’s matinee against Carolina. “We felt it was a real minor concussion, but protocol is what it is and you have to respect that,” Julien said. “Right now he’s just going through the stages and is doing very well. Today was skate without contact, and hopefully we move on to the next level by tomorrow.” Jordan Caron took Paille’s place on the fourth line and filled in well for the usual left wing. “People don’t realize how hard it is to be in, out, you don’t know from one day to the other whether you’ll be back in the lineup and he stood tall for himself,” Julien said. “I thought he played hard. He makes good decisions. The one thing about Jordan is he’s a really reliable player, and even on that goal I can look somewhere else than him. He’s been good, and as important is his attitude has been great. You don’t hear a peep out of him. He wants to play and he’s disappointed he doesn’t play, but he certainly doesn’t disrupt the room and he comes in with a big smile on his face and he comes to work hard every day. You can’t ask for more.” . . . Though Canadiens goaltender Carey Price (lower-body injury) practiced Tuesday, he missed his eighth straight game since returning from the Olympics in Sochi, Russia.Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin
@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.