bartkowski_matt_cardThis is the opportunity Bruins defenseman Matt Bartkowski should not only be grabbing but should be strangling until its blue in the face and can’t take in a single millimeter of oxygen.

Instead Bartkowski’s career is suffocating.

Now in his fifth year of professional hockey, the 26-year-old Bartkowski should be skating his way through 20 or so minutes a night on the Bruins’ back end now that Zdeno Chara is out with a tear in his knee.

Instead, in the second game the Bruins started without Chara since the injury, Bartkowski was on the bench for the final 13:26 of the Bruins’ 4-3 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday.

Even Zach Trotman, who was playing in just his fourth NHL game, got off the bench for three more shifts (including the last shift of the game during a 6-on-5) after Justin Fontaine scored the game-tying goal Tuesday.

Dougie Hamilton exceeded 28 minutes. Dennis Seidenberg played 24 minutes. Adam McQuaid was pushing 20 minutes. And after he reached a total of 8:56 for the night, Bartkowski was no longer of use to Bruins coach Claude Julien.

Torey Krug’s broken finger has now opened up more playing time that Bartkowski, at this point in his career, should at least be able to fill and not screw up. But the Bruins’ decision to recall two defensemen, Joe Morrow and David Warsofsky, for the road trip to Buffalo for a game on Thursday makes you wonder if Julien is considering even using Bartkowski against the Sabres.

After practice Julien was asked if he’s comfortable with Bartkowski in his lineup.

“We’ll see,” he said.

That was probably just another motivational tool pulled out by Julien. As weak as the Sabres are, they might be able to take advantage of a Bruins defense corps with Trotman, Morrow and Warsofsky manning half of the lineup slots. Julien’s not likely to sit someone with Bartkowski’s experience under the circumstances.

Of course, if Bartkowski’s play continues on its current trajectory, the Sabres, the Rochester Americans and every youth hockey team in Western New York could take advantage of the Bruins when the Ohio State product is on the ice.

Julien classified Bartkowski as “struggling.” Bartkowski didn’t hide from his troubles.

“If I start trying to do too much, then it’s going to be another problem,” Bartkowski said. “It’s just working through it. And it’s a time where I need to be better. You know the team needs me to be better, especially with these guys out. Like last year. I just need to play like that.”

Bartkowski described his play as “playing not to make mistakes.” These acknowledgments of his struggles would be all well and good if he was a rookie in his early 20s that barely had a taste of the NHL. Trotman or Morrow or Warsofsky could have a bad game and repeat Bartkowski’s words and you’d chalk it up. After all, there’d be room for improvement with experience. The problem is Bartkowski has been saying these things for at least four years and the words never seem to turn into improvement.

At least Bartkowski, a typically mild-mannered guy off the ice, finally seems fed up. He wasn’t quite sure if his third-period benching was rock bottom, but he revealed his plan for making sure his play doesn’t get worse.

He’s not relying on the notion that things have to get better because they can’t get worse.

“It doesn’t have to get better, but it’s time that I need to make it better, which I guess is what I’m trying to get at,” Bartkowski said. “It’s literally as simple as just going out there and playing hockey, playing the game you know, and that’s it.”

One has to suspect that Bartkowski will get another chance, or at least a half a chance, from Julien to turn around his play and be a solution to the injury problems on defense rather than a problem almost worse than missing three top-six players. Depending on how the call-ups fare and how quick the Bruins’ injured defensemen receover, though, a struggling Bartkowski could become an out-of-work Bartkowski.