A tough return for Stuart

PHILADELPHIA -- Boston Bruins defenseman Mark Stuart sat alone in the corner of the visitors locker room at the Wachovia Center. He was drenched in sweat. He was disillusioned. Like a true leader, maybe even a future captain of this team, he sat there and described his disappointment.

The Bruins had just lost 5-4 in overtime to the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, and Stuart and captain Zdeno Chara were the only players in the room at that time.

While Chara talked about his turnover that resulted in Simon Gagne's game-winning goal at 14:40 of overtime, Stuart said he was not surprised his skates didn't touch the ice in the extra frame.

"I wasn't surprised I wasn't out there," he admitted. "I don't think I showed enough during the game to deserve to be out there in overtime."

In his first game back since a nasty infection in his left hand sidelined him on April 2, Stuart dressed as the Bruins' sixth defenseman, alongside partner Andrew Ference, and played only 2:43 in the first period. His timing and rhythm were off and he was losing the physical battles, which is unlike him.

He was on the ice for the Flyers' second and third goals of the game in the second period as Philadelphia took a 3-1 lead. When the Bruins responded and tied the game at 3 and again at 4 in the third period, Stuart's ice time dwindled.

"I don't know why we're talking about that because it's his first game back," Bruins coach Claude Julien said when asked about Stuart's personal disappointment. "He's an athlete and he reacts that way after a loss. He's disappointed. I don't think he's necessarily down on himself. He came back and hasn't played in a while. There's going to be little glitches and we knew that going in. I don't have anything negative to say about him."

The coach shouldn't have anything negative to say. Stuart was close to returning anyway, but when fellow defenseman Adam McQuaid suffered a lower-body injury in Game 3, Stuart's services were needed.

He was cleared to play and said he was ready to go. For precautionary reasons, Andy Wozniewski was on the ice during warm-ups just in case Julien decided Stuart wasn't ready. He was deemed ready, but the intensity of the Stanley Cup playoffs was too much for him.

Stuart admitted as much.

"I felt OK," he said. "I made some mental mistakes that cost us. No excuses, I can be a lot better than that. I was a little bit better in the third, but definitely not in the first and half of the second. I wasn't quite getting into areas, but I can only go up from here. I'm ready to improve."

While Bruins rookie goaltender Tuukka Rask may also be a future leader in the room for this team, he's already one on the ice. He played well -- again -- Friday night and finished with 29 saves. He also had a pretty good vantage point of Stuart's play.

"I can't analyze one player, but he didn't make any mistakes," Rask said. "Tough break there when the puck hit his stick and one goal. But you know, [players] obviously recognize when they don't play their best ... but I thought he played a good game."

Bruins forward Trent Whitfield was in a similar situation as Stuart. Whitfield replaced David Krejci (dislocated hand) in the lineup, and Game 4 was the first time Whitfield's played this postseason. While he has been a healthy scratch during the playoffs and part of the black aces squad, Stuart only started skating last week.

"It's tough," Whitfield said. "You've gotta get up to game speed. You want to get out there and get a few shifts under your belt and try to gather yourself. Everything is a lot faster than you're used to in practice. Once you get out there, you get a couple of shifts, maybe a hit, get the puck in deep and get your legs moving. You want to contribute and not hurt your team."

Stuart did not hurt his team despite his own admission. He showed how much of a leader and competitor he is by playing. He even admitted after Friday's morning skate that only two weeks ago he thought he was done for the season. He played a total of 9:46 in his first game back and no doubt Julien and the Bruins will rely on him again when this series shifts back to Boston for Game 5.

"He brought some intensity and some leadership, so I told him not to be too hard on himself," said teammate Shawn Thornton. "He hasn't played in a while and he wanted to play. I thought he played pretty well. It's tough coming back. His role is a little more limited than it was before he left, but after taking the amount of time off that he did, he played hard for us."

In defeat, Stuart showed his true competitiveness.

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