DETROIT – Nearly a year has passed since Brad Stuart walked out of Joe Louis Arena for the last time as a Red Wing.
On Wednesday, the veteran defenseman returned to Hockeytown – for the first time since joining the San Jose Sharks during the off-season – to the site of the 2008 Stanley Cup championship that he helped acquire.
“It’s nice to be back. I’ve got a lot of good memories here, but it’s a little strange at the same time coming into the other side of the locker room,” said Stuart, following the Sharks’ practice on Wednesday. “I’m sure tomorrow night will be a little different, fun, but I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be a fun experience and I’m sure it will be fun to come back and play here.”
Thursday’s home game against the Sharks is Stuart’s only visit to Detroit this season, and the third and final game of the season series between these two Western Conference rivals. The first two games this year were at HP Pavilion, where the Sharks managed to earn three points in a shootout loss (Feb. 28) and a win (March 28) over the Wings.
Last spring, Stuart requested, and was granted, a trade to the Sharks so that he could be closer to his wife and young boys, who live in northern California. A custody issue with her teenage daughter from a previous marriage prohibited Stuart’s wife from relocating to Michigan during his four years with the Red Wings. So the Wings would often allow him to miss occasional practices so he could fly home to visit his family.
Being away from his family was painful for Stuart. He was a favorite among the Wings’ coaching staff and his teammates, which made his decision to return to a team on the West Coast even more difficult.
The Red Wings definitely miss Stuart’s steadiness along the blue line and in the defensive zone, but the Sharks are certainly glad to have the 33-year-old, who is one of two defensemen to play in every game for San Jose this season.
Veteran goalie Antti Niemi appreciates what Stuart’s calm demeanor means to the Sharks.
“He’s good in both ends with the puck and great at making the break out passes, blocking shots and pretty good in front of the net,” Niemi said. “He makes all of the right plays. He’s definitely a goalie’s defenseman.”
While he didn’t run into any former coaches or players on Wednesday, Stuart knows that this visit isn’t about fraternizing with old friends as much as it is adding two-points with a win. The Sharks currently reside in the No. 5 spot in the conference playoff standings, and he’s fully aware that the points are probably a little more important to his former teammates, who are clawing to hold onto a 22nd straight playoff berth.
“It’s going to be a good game, and they’re still a good team,” Stuart said. “They still have a lot of elite-caliber players and a lot of desperation to go along with that. That’s a dangerous combination and as a group we have to be ready for that, and be aware of the guys that can hurt you.”
The Sharks had been riding a pretty good crest until Tuesday when they began a four-game road trip in Columbus, where they were shutout, 4-0, by the surging Blue Jackets.
“We didn’t have the desire, I don’t think, to get in and cause havoc on the forecheck, and made it easy on the other team,” Stuart said. “It was 1-nothing after the first and we were in a good position, I thought. Then we made a couple of mistakes and it was 3-nothing. They hadn’t done anything spectacular, we kind of handed them a couple of goals, but give them credit, they were opportunistic and we couldn’t get anything going in the third.”
But expect the Sharks to return to their physical nature and make the Red Wings earn every inch of space on Thursday, especially with their big forwards, led by 6-foot-5 defenseman Brent Burns, who has been used on a forward line with center Joe Thornton and Marty Havlat quite often this season.
“As we were playing better that’s one thing that was standing out, our forecheck and how our guys were using their size and their speed to get in and cause turnovers,” Stuart said. “We need that again tomorrow. If you can get guys who are 6-4, 6-5, getting in there and using their body, good thing are going to happen. So we need that tomorrow. We didn’t have that last night and you saw the results.”
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