WINNIPEG - He hasn’t had a point in 22 games, but if you want to measure the recent play of Winnipeg Jets defenceman Mark Stuart, that’s not where you look.
His face, now that’s another story.
Friday, for instance, Stuart was brandishing a new shiner under his right eye, the carnage from a Thursday night punch-up with Buffalo’s Cody McCormick.
“The face is a little sore,” he acknowledged. “But other than that, it’s just bumps and bruises. And it never hurts as much after you win.”
Stuart’s face already resembled a road map, so the purple colouring didn’t really stand out. Looked a bit like a small lake to the north.
The rest of the 27-year-old’s mug on this day was a combination of stubble and old scars, running this way and that like short, dead-end roads.
He’s starting to forget how some of them got there. But one, running east-west, just south of the lake, he’ll probably never forget.
“My brother pushed me off the porch,” Stuart said. “And a stick went through my cheek. I had two older brothers, so I got beat up more, then, than I do now.”
If that’s the case, then life in Rochester, Minn., must have been pretty rough.
Because lately Stuart has been dropping the gloves as frequently as anyone in the NHL, sometimes against the league’s heavyweights — and with mixed results. Four scraps in the last 10 days give him six for the season, easily on pace for a career high.
Often, as happened against Buffalo, Stuart will dish out a clean hit, only to be challenged. And it’s not like he ever declines.
“I’d like to not get punched the face,” he conceded. “But those things are going to happen. It’s part of the way I play. If those things are happening, then I’m doing my job.”
If there’s a more competitive player on the Jets roster, I haven’t seen him.
The lengths No. 5 will go to win hockey games can be found in some of those little-known stats that don’t make the newspapers.
Like hits, where Stuart leads the Jets with 115. Zach Bogosian is next with 70. Or like blocked shots, where Stuart’s 118 are second in the NHL to Montreal’s Josh Gorges.
“I hear that,” Stuart said. “I don’t really look at that kind of stuff. But it’s something I take pride in. It’s something I’ve always done. I’ve gotten better at it. First, it’s just a willingness to get in front of it. I’ve learned different ways that work better.”
But they still mostly hurt.
“He gets them in his arm, or whatever, and it kills him — and the next shift he’s right back in the lane again,” Jets assistant coach Charlie Huddy said. “I’m sure there’s lots of mornings he wakes up like he got hit by a truck.”
It’s hard to imagine anybody being a passenger while watching Stuart play.
“It brings everybody’s game up,” Huddy said. “It earns him 100% respect in the room. It’s not going to come out of his game. That’s just the fire he has in his eyes every night when he goes out on the ice.”
Jets captain Andrew Ladd describes Stuart as a “heart and soul” guy, who’s “invaluable.”
And hard to find, said head coach Claude Noel.
“He throws his body in front of everything,” Bogosian said. “He does anything to win.”
For Stuart, winning is the ultimate painkiller.
Which helps explain the smile frequently breaking through that new shiner the day after a 4-1 decision over the Sabres. A smile often smothered under Stuart’s intensity.
“I hate to lose more than I like to win,” Stuart explained. “I probably wouldn’t be the same way if we hadn’t won. Unfortunately, a lot of my moods depend on wins and losses.”
He’s the human road map, all right.
If you want to win, just follow the blue-collar defenceman with the black eye.
But bring an ice pack.