BostonBruins.com -- A big part of the P-Bruins turnaround has been the play of blueliner Matt Bartkowski, whose own season has mirrored his club's sharp upturn in recent weeks.
Providence needs just two points to tie the Atlantic Division leading Portland Pirates in the standings.
That's quite a rebound for the P-B's, who were fighting to keep out of the divisional cellar earlier this season. Now, as one of the league's hottest teams (7-2-0-1 in their last 10), Boston's prospects now feel like they have a solid base to stand on as they fight, not only to return to the playoffs, but for better seeding in the Calder Cup tournament.
As an elder statesmen on the Bruins burgeoning AHL club, Bartkowski, who was acquired by Boston in March 2010 after being drafted by Florida (7th Round, 190th Overall) is also coming into his own.
"I think I’m almost back to where I was last year," said Bartkowski, referencing his injury shortened 2011-12 campaign. "There’s a lot of little things I have to work on that I know about.
"Nothing major, but just keep getting better in every aspect that I can, you know? Maybe add a little more offense here and there…but I think my defensive game is a lot better, so it kind of goes hand in hand.
"But it’s not really an excuse for less production," he said.
True, Bartkowski hasn't been producing points at the same clip that saw him put up a 3-19-22 line through just 50 games last season, but after 25 games with 1-6-7 totals -- all while displaying a more mature game -- Matt's worth to the P-Bruins might be at a career high.
"He’s been our most consistent guy back there in the last month," said P-Bruins Head Coach Bruce Cassidy. "Part of that is he is hard on himself.
"In expectations for him, the bar has been raised. So, at the start of the year, we expected better. We didn’t get it, and he expected better from himself - and now we’re getting it
"He’s a guy that’s playing a good 20-25 minutes a night and usually against the other team’s top group," he said.
That uptick has also been noticed in many facets of Bartkowski's game.
"He’s been good on the penalty kill," explained Cassidy. "Offensively, he’s starting to join the rush. Every game he seems to create a play, or finish a play. That’s good as well, because you need that side of it as well.
"But, in general, he’s starting to form an identity as a solid defender, a reliable puck-mover and a guy that can contribute a little on the offensive side.
"In your third year, that’s what you want. You want a consistent guy every night that gives you a good solid game and we’re seeing that."
Bartkowski's teammates have also enjoyed seeing "Bart" come up so big so often, especially late in the the first half of the current campaign.
"Yeah, I think he’s kind of finding his rhythm now," said fellow blueliner David Warsofsky. "I mean Bart’s skating, he’s moving his feet, he’s making good passes.
"I think he’s at his best. probably the best skater we have on this team and maybe one of the best in the league, so when he uses that to an advantage I think he’s unstoppable."
For his own part, Bartkowski (who has played nine NHL games for Boston) generally employs a biting self deprecation whenever asked about his own play, but talked about his recent progression and said much of the impetus comes from looking in the mirror.
"I was thinking about it the other day with [Garnet Exelby] out of the line up, I was the most veteran D we had," said Bartkowski, who clearly understands his importance to the Providence defense corps. "[It] was kind of weird to think about, but you know it’s kind of cool at the same time.
"Yeah, if I’m clicking and I’m going pretty well, the D will go well too so, it’s really up to me and our second year guys," continued Matt. "So, I think if my game’s consistent it’ll just rub off on everybody else’s and everybody will be clicking."
With everyone on the same page, the P-B's hope that Bartkowski can be an even bigger factor in the club's second half.
"Right now, Matt is definitely still a prospect, but I don’t want him to wake up one day and just be a guy that you know, Boston can just use in a pinch," explained Cassidy. "We want to convince him that you’re going to be the 'next guy.'
"So he’s taken on that mindset a little bit and that challenge."
In the meantime, Bartkowski is keeping his ears open, and working to ensure he's ready whenever he's called up I-95.
"Yeah, a lot of good things," he said about his coaches' consistent feedback this season. "Anything that’s a bad habit or anything like that they try and fix.
"And yeah, it’s not much negative, but when I need to hear the negative things they’re there as well."