The blueliner played 20-25 minutes a night against the opponent's top lines with the Bruins' American Hockey League affiliate. His uptick in consistency was rubbing off on his defense corps, and coincided with the team's solid play, as they became one of the hottest teams in the league (going 7-2-0-1 to start December with a goal and five assists from Bartkowski in that span).
"Right now, Matt is definitely still a prospect," Providence Bruins Head Coach Bruce Cassidy had said to BostonBruins.com back on December 26. "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. We want to convince him that, you’re going to be the 'next guy.'
"So he’s taken on that mindset…and that challenge."
Bartkowski may not have had the start to the season that he wanted with the P-Bruins, but after the December upswing in his game, he continued that steady play through the second half of the season on the back end, while contributing two goals and 14 assists in 29 games from January through March.
And when Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid suffered injuries on Boston's blueline, Bartkowski was the one to get the call.
He stayed up with the big club for a month, and experienced quite a whirlwind, being one of the pieces in the Jarome Iginla trade that fell through with Calgary (oh, the irony) and notching his first two NHL assists. He also inked a new one-year, one-way deal during that time. Julien noticed a more assertive player than in his two previous years in the organization - there was more consistency, more poise to his game.
The D-man was then assigned to Providence on April 26 to help with the Calder Cup playoffs, where he put up five assists in five games, as the P-Bruins overcame an 0-2 deficit to win three straight against the Hershey Bears and advance to the second round.
His stay wasn't long - a depleted Boston back end needed support. Again, Bartkowski got the call. His playoff debut came just one game before playing in the 4-3 overtime comeback thriller over Toronto in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, in which he also scored his first NHL goal.
The B's brass liked what they saw. He received full marks from Head Coach Claude Julien for his puck-carrying ability and Assistant GM Don Sweeney said that "he earned the trust of the coaches by skating with authority, making strong decisions and playing well."
"Now I know how to play and I know that I can play my game at this level," the defenseman remarked after the game.
In his previous three seasons in Boston's system, (after his rights were acquired from the Florida Panthers along with Dennis Seidenberg in 2010), Bartkowski had come into training camp focused on proving himself.
Now, heading into 2013-14, he's looking to pick up where he left off. Being Providence's guy is great, but he wants to be Boston's guy.
"Absolutely; that's what I train for in the summer, and work for during the season," said Bartkowski, as I caught up with him recently, before heading into a competitive camp.
"That's definitely what I'm aiming for, shooting for, and where I expect to be this season, and anything less would be a disappointment."
The 25-year-old played in seven NHL postseason games, from Game 6 against Toronto, through the Rangers' second-round series. Despite the toughness of being a healthy scratch for the final two series of the playoffs, Bartkowski finally felt the confidence to play consistently at the NHL level.
"Playing the way I was and knowing that I can be a part of the team and help and be effective. It's never fun to watch - I want to be playing," he remarked. "And knowing that I'm able to do it is definitely motivation to want to have a regular role on the team."
"[I just have to] pick up where I left off, how I was playing in playoffs - being physical, moving the puck, using my feet and just being pretty strong all over the ice, so if I can do that and start the season off that way and progress that way, it should go pretty well."
And just as the coaching staff in Providence helped Bartkowski increase his confidence, so too did Julien and the B's.
"It definitely helped a lot, them showing confidence in me," he said. "[They] let me more or less, just be able to go out and there and play, and get into the flow of the game and be able to be effective."
"Before that, I was playing a limited role, limited minutes, and kind of just playing as if I didn't want to make a mistake, and towards the end of the season, I was just able to go out there and play my game, which helped a lot."
A Path Like Johnny's
Bartkowski's trajectory in the B's system has been awfully similar to another Bruin he knows well. He and Johnny Boychuk may have matching personalities - both easygoing, while exuding a ruggedness on the ice (and never ones to shy away from our BostonBruinsTV cameras) - but it's their progressions from the AHL to the NHL that mirror one another the most.
After three seasons with Providence, Bartkowski grew into an expanded role during the postseason, and is working to make the jump to being a full-time NHLer. Boychuk spent five seasons in the 'A,' including three with the P-Bruins before solidifying his play during the 2010 postseason.
"I have thought about that - I mean, I'm making similar - pretty much, identical progression to what he made, where coming into playoffs and playing a role," said Bartkowski, who was often paired with Boychuk this season.
"Just, you control what you can control, and pretty much that's on the ice during the season, just putting your best foot forward."
It's with that attitude that he heads into a training camp, where, with the departure of Andrew Ference, he's face "healthy competition" with his fellow blueliners, including Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton.
"There's going to be a lot of competition," acknowledged Bartkowski. "And I don't really worry about anything that anyone else is doing. Because at the end of the day, if you're playing better than they are, then you're going to play. So there's no real reason to concern yourself with how this guy made this play, or this and that."
"It's just worry about what you can control and play as well as you can, and the rest will take care of itself."