Somewhere, buried under the rubble of rotten shifts, lost pucks, and shattered confidence, Matt Bartkowski’s game was still around. He just had to find it, chip off the rust, and let it breathe.
“It’s been there before,” Bartkowski said after the Bruins’ 2-0 win over St. Louis on Tuesday night at TD Garden. “I didn’t see any reason why it shouldn’t.”
Bartkowski dressed for the second straight game. He was good against the Hurricanes last Saturday. He was even better against the Blues.
Bartkowski was involved in both of his team’s goals. Defensively, Bartkowski’s quickness, stick, and strength staved off two excellent scoring chances. In 20:52 of ice time, Bartkowski played like a defenseman without a worry in the world.
It sounds so easy for an NHL defenseman to play with confidence. It is doubly so for a player with Bartkowski’s physical gifts, skating being his best.
But there is nothing easy about finding a game that was as lost as Pompeii. For a four-game stretch in October, one that ended with just 8:56 of ice time in a 4-3 loss to Minnesota, Bartkowski fought himself so hard that just about every shift pointed to danger. As it always does to players in trouble, the puck found Bartkowski at inopportune occasions — which, in his case, was all the time.
He lost pucks. He allowed forecheckers to close on him quickly. Bartkowski had become the pitcher who couldn’t throw to first base because he was so scared of the outcome. Bartkowski saw his playing time go to Joe Morrow, then David Warsofsky, then Zach Trotman. There was no way his bosses could put him back in.
It was hard to watch. It was even harder to go through it.
“He sat quite a few games,” said coach Claude Julien, who took Bartkowski out of uniform for seven straight. “His game just wasn’t up to par. He certainly wasn’t a good asset for us. So we sat him out, but kept working with him. He kept a good attitude. He kept working at things during practice. When he got his chance, he looked like a guy who was ready. I thought he was pretty good against Carolina. No doubt he was even better tonight.”
In the first period, Bartkowski’s crisp puck movement led to Patrice Bergeron’s game-opening goal. Torey Krug started the play with a D-to-D pass behind the net. As soon as Bartkowski reeled in Krug’s pass, he looked up and saw Paul Stastny closing on the forecheck.
A few weeks ago, when he was fighting himself, Bartkowski would have hesitated. He would have allowed Stastny to swallow up the puck. Or he might have burped a pass up the middle that the Blues would have intercepted.
Instead, Bartkowski snapped a clean pass up the strong-side wall to Matt Fraser. Moments later, after a botched exchange between Brian Elliott and Ian Cole, Bergeron tapped in a short-range shot at 5:45.
In the second, Bartkowski recorded his first assist of the year. By holding the right point, Bartkowski helped the third line keep the down-low cycle alive. Loui Eriksson shuttled the puck up to Bartkowski. He faked a slap shot, then went D-to-D to Krug at the left point. Krug’s shot glanced off Cole and skimmed past Elliott at 11:31.
Bartkowski was just as good defensively. In the first, he sealed off Alex Steen and prevented the dangerous forward from sneaking away on goal. In the second, Alex Pietrangelo dangled through the neutral zone and connected with Vladimir Tarasenko. Bartkowski caught up, dove, and busted up the play before Tarasenko could get a puck on goal.
“I’m just playing my game,” Bartkowski said. “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.”
The Bruins needed Bartkowski’s skill set. They were coming off back-to-back routs against Toronto and Montreal. Their breakouts were stagnant. When he’s right, Bartkowski is the team’s best one-man breakout, especially when he turns the net and wheels up the ice. The problem was that he was too frightened to try it.
“When his confidence is down, you can see him being not sure about moving the puck, being hesitant, going or not going,” Julien said. “That’s a confidence thing. That’s what we talked about when we took him out: Right now, he’s his worst enemy. Sometimes you’ve got to take a step back. You work with him and try to rebuild his confidence.”
So on Saturday, he got the nod. Trotman was scratched. Bartkowski responded with 17:37 of reliable play while skating with Krug on the No. 3 pairing.
Julien could have sat Bartkowski against the Blues. Kevan Miller didn’t have much practice time, but he had been cleared to play for the first time since dislocating his shoulder on Oct. 18. Miller’s surliness would have been welcome against St. Louis’s skilled attack, especially against heavy forwards such as David Backes.
But Bartkowski deserved to play. He rewarded his coach by elevating his play even more.
“He was skating very well,” Krug said. “He moved the puck with confidence. That’s important when a player doesn’t have their confidence all the time.”
For Bartkowski, the worst part is over. He’s an NHL defenseman once more. He does not intend to know anything otherwise.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.