Stuart getting closer to return

BOSTON -- Bruins defenseman Mark Stuart participated in the team’s game-day skate Thursday morning at TD Garden.

It’s the first time he’s been on the ice with the team since he fractured his right ring finger on Dec. 7 against the Buffalo Sabres. He’s missed a total of 17 games, including tonight’s contest against the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Everything is feeling good,” Stuart said. “Physically I feel great.”

During his brief time on the ice this morning he didn't shoot the puck much, but he said he believes he’s in great shape and he’s hoping to return to the lineup soon.

“He’s progressing normally, I guess,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “As far as how close he is, I’m not sure yet. I don’t know if anybody can predict that. I could say a week to 10 days, or it could be a little bit earlier, or a bit more. It's one of those hand injuries that you have to make sure heals properly.”

Stuart is expected to get another X-ray taken tonight. Meanwhile, he’s been wearing a brace to protect his hand and expects he’ll need to wear it once he returns to game action.

Unfortunately for the Bruins, Stuart has been limited to 82 games over the past season and a half due to various injuries. He suffered a broken sternum in December of 2009, snapping a streak of 214 consecutive games played. When he returned late last season, bad luck followed him and his finger became infected and needed surgery. He missed the first round of the playoffs against the Sabres.

He had played 26 games this season before suffering his latest injury.

“Well, it definitely doesn’t get easier,” Stuart said. “I don’t care who you are, you always want to be playing and in the lineup. It’s never fun being on the outside, but having experience with it helps mentally.”

During his rehab, Stuart has been working closely with the team’s strength and conditioning coach, John Whitesides, and Stuart joked that the two are getting sick of each other.

“He’s really helped me through it and has kept me in shape,” admitted Stuart.

“The irony of that is for the longest time he was like an ironman,” Julien said. “He never got hurt and last year he had those situations happen and it just seems like it all comes in bunches. It’s part of the game, unfortunately, and you’ve got to bite the bullet, fight through it and work your way back into the lineup when you’re healed.”

Because the Bruins’ defensive core of Zdeno Chara, Johnny Boychuk, Andrew Ference, Adam McQuaid, Steven Kampfer and Dennis Seidenberg has been playing well, it’ll be a challenge for Stuart to get back into the lineup.

Actually, he’s OK with that.

“It’s get healthy and make sure I can play and then it’s up to the coaches,” he said. “It’s not like I get a free pass back in the lineup. You have to earn it.

“I obviously want the guys to play well. This is the best position to be in and it’s only going to make me work harder to get back, and to play well when I get back. You definitely have to earn your way back, I don’t care who you are. The guys have played well.”