BOSTON -- Just before the puck dropped at the TD Garden on Tuesday night, Boston Bruins head coach Claude Julien had a decision to make regarding his defensive pairings.
Kevan Miller was cleared for game action for the first time since mid-October after missing a handful of games with a shoulder injury. Yet Julien opted to stick with Matt Bartkowski, who had just three days prior returned from being a healthy scratch for seven straight games due to shaky play and struggles with confidence.
Sixty minutes of regulation later, it's safe to say Julien made the right decision.
Bartkowski posted his strongest effort of the season in the team's 2-0 win over the St. Louis Blues. He played strong defensively, breaking up what could have been multiple quality scoring chances for the Blues' offense, while also tallying his first point of the season with an assist on Torey Krug's goal in the second period.
Bartkowski's big game was made all the more important after defenseman Adam McQuaid was injured while blocking a shot early in the second period and did not return. Bartkowski tied for the team high in shifts (29) and logged 20:52 of ice time.
"Just playing my game, confident as I can be," Bartkowski said. "It's big. We've got injuries on the back end, so somebody's got to step up. I'm just happy I'm playing my game."
Just two weeks ago Julien would have told you Bartkowski was his own worst enemy. He had skated his way into the coach's doghouse, a product of untimely turnovers and a minus-four rating in five games played. Even with Miller, Krug, Zdeno Chara and David Warsofsky all missing time with injuries, Julien had continued to stay away from Bartkowski.
"His play just wasn't up to par and certainly wasn't a good asset for us so we sat him out," Julien said. "But we still worked with him and he kept a good attitude and kept working at things during practice."
Getting reps during practice, Bartkowski felt his confidence coming back. It had been there last season, when he skated in 64 games and posted a plus-22 rating. And he knew it could return at any time this season.
"It's been there before, I didn't see any reason why it shouldn't," Bartkowski said. "When things weren't going well, it was just a shift away, just a little confidence thing. And I got that back, so now it's just playing hockey."
If you're looking for proof that his confidence is back, look no further than the first period. After finding himself out of position and allowing Blues forward Alexander Steen a chance to hustle up ice for a nearly unopposed breakaway, Bartkowski quickly reacted, catching up to Steen and putting the body on him while steering the puck off his stick. Perhaps most impressive of all, Bartkowski avoided a penalty in the process.
"Starting off the play, I wasn't inside the dots like I should have been, so that's why they got that chance," Bartkowski said. "I don't know, I was just doing everything I could to get back in front of them and try to get the puck."
Later in the game, Vladimir Tarasenko also had a chance at a clear breakaway rushing up ice toward Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask, but Bartkowski dove to take the puck away from him and thwart yet another scoring chance. Needless to say, Bartkowski's teammates noticed the different player they were seeing on the ice.
"He played a great game today," Rask said. "He was in there battling hard, making good plays, strong passes and then those couple of plays. It was kind of a desperate play when he dove and slapped the puck away. It means he's on his game and the past couple of games he's been great for us."
"I think he's bounced back great," he said. "We've been watching his effort, and you always just tell him keep doing what you do best, because you know there's a reason that you're here. And that's what he does, and tonight was a good showing. I think he was skating very well, and he moved the puck with confidence, and that's important when a player doesn't have their confidence all the time."
Bartkowski's newfound confidence couldn't come at a better time for a Bruins team that may now lose the services of yet another defenseman, McQuaid. With changes possibly coming to fill the void, Bartkowski likely won't have to worry about being a scratch next time out against Columbus on Friday. Tuesday he proved he has put his mistakes behind him and earned his way back onto the ice for the foreseeable future.
"Tonight Miller was available, but I didn't feel that in my mind Bartkowski deserved to sit out," Julien said. "That's not the message I want to send as a coach. If you deserve to play, you play.
"I thought he was pretty good against Carolina, and no doubt he was even better tonight. That was a strong performance on his part. It was encouraging to see Bart get back to how we know he can be."