Leafs D Jake Gardiner returns to practice; eager for another shot at Bruins - InfoNews

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Leafs D Jake Gardiner returns to practice; eager for another shot at Bruins

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner, right, congratulates goaltender Frederik Andersen after an NHL hockey game against the Colorado Avalanche, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019, in Denver. Maple Leafs defenceman Gardiner returned to practice in a non-contact jersey Thursday, his first action with teammates since suffering a back injury that's kept him out of Toronto's lineup since Feb. 25. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/David Zalubowski
March 28, 2019 - 2:09 PM

TORONTO - Jake Gardiner wants another crack at the Boston Bruins.

The polarizing Maple Leafs defenceman practised in a non-contact jersey Thursday, his first action with teammates since suffering a back injury that's kept him out of Toronto's lineup since Feb. 25.

Gardiner had a miserable Game 7 against the Bruins in the first round of last spring's playoffs, finishing an ugly minus-5 in a 7-4 loss that sent the Leafs packing.

And although the 28-year-old isn't ready to knock shoulders in drills — let alone with opponents when the chips are down — he's hoping to return in time for what, barring something unforeseen, will be a Toronto-Boston rematch.

"It's huge," Gardiner said when asked what the opportunity to get a second shot at the Bruins means. "Last year did not end well, obviously.

"Hopefully, this year is our year."

Injury isn't the only hurdle Gardiner has had to try and overcome in 2018-19.

Two big mental ones have no doubt weighed on him as well — the boos he heard from home fans in January and the reality that Toronto's shrinking available salary cap space likely means the team won't be able to afford his services beyond this season.

"Any time you're hurt, it's tough," said Gardiner, who bravely met the media with tears in his eyes following that Game 7 debacle 11 months ago. "Being a professional athlete, you're so competitive and want to play all the time. Of course, this is no different."

Set to become an unrestricted free agent July 1 after eight years with the organization, Gardiner missed two games with back spasms before the all-star break, but Toronto general manager Kyle Dubas said earlier this month the two injuries aren't related.

The high-risk, high-reward defender was the focus of growing fan angst a few months ago during some rough outings, with jeers coming from some sections of the crowd at Scotiabank Arena.

But the numbers and the eye test show the Leafs are a much better team with Gardiner and Travis Dermott, who is also nearing a return from a shoulder injury suffered Feb. 27, in the lineup rather than some patchwork combination that includes Martin Marincin, Igor Ozighanov and Justin Holl.

Cemented in the Atlantic Division's No. 3 spot, Toronto has surrendered the third-most goals in the NHL since Gardiner went down after allowing the ninth-fewest before the injury.

The Leafs are 8-5-3 in the 16 games he's missed, including 3-4-2 over their last nine.

"Jake's a great player," said fellow Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly. "When he's not in the lineup you miss him a great deal because of his ability to move the puck and join the rush and break the puck out.

"He's very valuable."

Dermott, who took part in his first full on-ice session Thursday, said he hopes to play when the Leafs visit the Ottawa Senators on Saturday.

"Every team goes through its ups and downs," the 22-year-old said of Toronto's recent showings. "It's definitely been tough not being able to help out and do my part."

Gardiner has two goals and 27 assists in 60 games this season, while Dermott has 17 points (four goals, 13 assists) in the same number of outings.

"Not only do they play good defence, but they do good things offensively on the blue line and they keep the play alive and generate offence for your forwards," Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said. "There's two parts of the equation."

Gardiner's last game before going on the shelf came hours after the NHL trade deadline, meaning Dubas was without the option of potentially bringing in reinforcements from outside the organization.

The defenceman was coy when asked if surgery was discussed or when he will return to the lineup, but Thursday represented a big step.

"You want to be flying going into the playoffs," Gardiner said. "You never want to be hurt, but especially at a time like this where you have such a good team.

"You want to be part of it."

And especially now, when his time in Toronto appears to be nearing its end.

ENNIS GETS MASTERTON NOD

Tyler Ennis is the Leafs' nominee for the 2019 Bill Masterton Trophy, which honours "perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey," as voted by the Toronto Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. The diminutive winger signed a one-year deal in July, made the Leafs out of training camp and has been an effective addition to the fourth line. The 29-year-old broke his ankle Dec. 22, but was back by the middle of February and scored his first-career hat trick on March 4. "It means a lot to me," said Ennis, who has 12 goals and six assists in 47 games. "All the credit goes to the Leafs organization (for) giving me a chance."

GREAT WOLL

Heads turned at Thursday's practice when a third goalie stepped on the ice with maroon equipment. Joseph Woll, a third-round pick of the Leafs in 2016, participated in his first on-ice session after signing an entry-level contract with Toronto over the weekend following the end to Boston College's season. The plan is to have the 20-year-old around the team as much as possible, but he also has exams to finish up at school.

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News from © The Canadian Press, 2019
The Canadian Press

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