Pound for pound, Mark Stuart is arguably the strongest player on the Bruins. He's an above-average skater who can jump in the play and recover before damage is done. He can bowl over forwards in the danger areas. He has an underrated wrist shot that is heavy and accurate.
Funny how the mind can render some of those attributes moot.
The 6-foot-2-inch, 213-pound Stuart, Boston's first-round pick in the 2003 draft, has skated mostly on the third pairing this season. Stuart entered last night's game averaging 14:29 of ice time, fewer than all Boston defensemen except Matt Lashoff (13:32).
"You've got to not let that creep in, but it's hard not to," Stuart said of being afraid of committing errors. "When you're not playing as many minutes, you're like, 'I can't make mistakes now. This is only my second shift of the period.' You shouldn't think like that. But it's tough."
Stuart, an alternate captain for Team USA during the 2008 world championships, was coming off a solid 2007-08 in which he was one of only three Bruins to appear in all 82 games (Phil Kessel and Glen Metropolit were the others). Stuart (4-4 -8) averaged 15:22 of ice time.
But this season Stuart has struggled at times in the Bruins' zone, especially with the puck.
"I thought last year, he had a really good year," said coach Claude Julien. "This year, he had a bit of a slow start compared to what we had seen last year."
Stuart, however, has shown recent signs of jacking up his game. Last Friday, after Aaron Ward lasted only two shifts because of an ankle injury, Julien tabbed Stuart for additional ice time. Stuart responded with a two-goal effort against the Thrashers in 19:34 of action. The next night in the rematch, Stuart logged 20:58, the most he's skated this season.
"His play is coming along," Julien said. "Some guys have quick starts, then they fade. Other guys have slow starts and get better as the year goes along."
In last night's 8-5 win against Toronto, Stuart was paired mostly with Zdeno Chara. Stuart skated 23 shifts for 17:44 of ice time. At 2:51 of the second period, Stuart fought Maple Leafs forward John Mitchell.
"Any time you're getting more minutes, you're just more comfortable," Stuart said. "Once you're into that rhythm, you're not thinking too much about making mistakes."
The left wing, out for 12 straight games because of a neck injury, was activated off long-term injured reserve and started the game alongside Patrice Bergeron and Chuck Kobasew.
On his first shift, Sturm put the Bruins on the board. He skated to the slot and planted himself in front of Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala, putting himself in position to tuck home the rebound of a long Kobasew wrister 36 seconds into the game.
But the Bruins lost Sturm at 13:37 of the first when he left with an undisclosed injury. Sturm was checked into the boards by forward Nikolai Kulemin and fell awkwardly to the ice.
He was helped off and didn't return, skating only four shifts for 2:31 of ice time. After the game, Julien said Sturm was undergoing tests and he hadn't heard any results