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Sunday, March 21, 2010
Stuart emerging as a Bruins leader

By Joe McDonald
ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Defenseman Mark Stuart's body had barely landed on the ice when four of his Boston Bruins teammates charged the New York Rangers' Vinny Prospal.

Stuart was playing the puck behind his own net and tried to change directions when Prospal slammed him headfirst into the dasher below the glass. Stuart appeared seriously injured at first as he stayed motionless facedown on the ice for a moment. Meanwhile, his teammates reacted quickly and jumped his perpetrator, with Bruins' assistant captain Patrice Bergeron the first in the scrum.

"We need that," said Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, who finished with 23 saves in Boston's 2-1 victory over New York at the TD Banknorth Garden. "I was almost thinking about throwing myself in there, too. We stick together, and that's what teams do."

Boston's reaction Sunday was quite different than it was March 7 when teammate Marc Savard suffered a Grade 2 concussion after a blindside hit by the Penguins' Matt Cooke. The response Sunday was an encouraging sign for the Bruins, especially with only 11 games remaining in the regular season and the team holding on to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Stuart admitted after the win over the Rangers that the hit hurt "pretty bad" but said he was OK and didn't think the shot was intentional. Prospal did apologize during a faceoff later in the game.

Intentional hit or not, the Bruins' reaction no doubt gave them momentum en route to gaining the all-important two points.

"It was good the guys came right in," Stuart said. "We played a good, intense game all night. We were physical all day, so we can be happy with that today. We've got to find some consistency in that. We've got to do that every day, every game, or else. We're a lot better when we play like that."

Speak for yourself, Stuart.

When the Bruins' defenseman plays that physical style, he's a force on the ice. He knows it. His teammates know it. More important, the opposition knows it.

Stuart has been the most physical player on the ice for the Bruins in the last seven games. That's probably another reason his teammates came to his defense after he was planted into the boards.

"He's been tremendous for us," Rask said. "When he's the mean Stewie like we want him to be, and what he wants to be, that's what we need. He knows he's not the most skillful player who can go coast to coast and things like that, but when he plays tough he can get under people's skin, and that helps us tremendously."

Boston suffered a deflating 3-0 loss to the Penguins last Thursday at the Garden, and afterward, Boston's management questioned the team's lack of leadership from the veterans. After Saturday's practice, head coach Claude Julien said it was about time some of the younger players stepped up and claimed a leadership role.

Stuart has been that guy.

"I hope so," he said after Sunday's win. "That's something I take pride in and I would like to develop into that role on this team."

While his teammates were in the midst of a scrum in the corner after he was hit, Stuart shook off the stinger, made it to his feet and jumped into the ruckus before receiving a roughing penalty for his actions. When he wasn't in the box, he played a total of 13 minutes, 45 seconds of physical hockey that inspired the rest of the Bruins.

"The biggest thing about Stewie is he's playing with that edge that he needs to play with," said Milan Lucic. "He's playing physical, and he's playing mean, and that's why he's playing the way he has been playing."

The 25-year-old blueliner has become an iron man for the Bruins since breaking into the NHL on a full-time basis at the start of the 2007-2008 season. He played 214 consecutive games before suffering a broken sternum Dec. 14 this season against Philadelphia. He missed 14 games, and when he returned to the lineup, Stuart lasted only six more before breaking a finger, which needed surgery.

He returned once again and has played the last 11 games, becoming a cornerstone for the Bruins.

"Mark has been really good the second half," Julien said. "I mentioned a while back that the two games before he was injured he played some of his best hockey. It was unfortunate he had that injury. He's come back, and we've put him in the same position to get more ice time and to step up and he's really answered that call very well. He's been playing really solid for us from that time on."

It's going to take more than just one player if the Bruins want to solidify a postseason berth. Julien believes Boston's victory, and solid play against the Rangers on Sunday, was a stride in the right direction, especially the way they came to Stuart's defense in the first period.

"We need to stick up for each other like a team," Julien said. "We haven't been the best at it this year -- that's a fact. I think everybody knows that, including ourselves, and the players have made a commitment to be a team and stick up for each other. That's what we did tonight."

From here on out, every game for the Bruins will be like a Game 7, and they'll need to live by the old hockey mantra: Twenty. Sixty. Two.

Meaning, 20 players, 60 minutes, two points.

"It's going to take all 20 of us to step up and do our part," Lucic said.

Joe McDonald covers the Bruins and Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.