TORONTO — All seemed right with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday as forward Dave Bolland and goaltender Jonathan Bernier returned to practice.
Having the injured players back on the ice and progressing was certainly a positive sign, but no one was sure if either would be in the lineup Saturday night against the Montreal Canadiens for a game that could have serious playoff implications.
“Bolly is obviously getting closer … and it’s getting close to a decision whether he’s going to be able to play for us in the next game and the game after,” coach Randy Carlyle said. “We think that Bernie is showing progress. To say that he is available for tomorrow night, I can’t tell you that right now. That again will be a decision we’ll make more than likely tomorrow afternoon.”
These are important decisions with the Leafs in the midst of a three-game losing streak and trying to keep a playoff position.
Bolland hasn’t played since Nov. 2 due to a severed tendon in the back of his right ankle while Bernier has been out a week with a groin injury. If they get the go-ahead to play, it’ll be the first time all season the Leafs will have iced their full lineup. That would be impeccable timing for a game Joffrey Lupul called Toronto’s biggest of the year.
“I think that’s going to be really exciting for us as a group,” Lupul said Friday. “Injuries or suspensions, whatever, is part of the deal, but we were pretty excited with some of our additions coming into camp and it seems that we haven’t had everyone in there as a whole. It would be interesting to see.”
Even though James Reimer performed well in Bernier’s absence and a rotating crew of centres filled in admirably over much of the past 56 games Bolland has missed, the Leafs are a different team with those players.
In going 25-16-7 with a 2.61 goals-against average and .925 save percentage, Bernier not only solidified his spot as the No. 1 goalie but covered up for a lot of his teammates’ mistakes. The Leafs have lost the past five games the 25-year-old has not appeared in, including these three in a row with Bernier sitting out with the first groin injury of his career.
“It’s tough to watch your team lose, but I don’t think we played our best games in the last three and I thought James was really good,” Bernier said. “We just got to re-focus. We’re not in a bad spot.”
Bernier, who reported feeling better over a three-day span, wants to make sure he doesn’t put his team in a worse spot by rushing back from an injury that can be nagging, especially for goaltenders.
“I just don’t want to push it, and I think everyone’s on the same page with the staff,” he said. “It’s a critical time (with) playoffs coming, so I want to make sure that I’m fully a hundred per cent (and that) my body feels pretty good to get on the ice.”
Bolland felt good, too, after skating line rushes between Mason Raymond and David Clarkson, an indication the 27-year-old centre would likely play against Montreal.
But after he appeared close to returning a few weeks ago and scaled back, nothing’s certain.
“It’s on the upwards, and things are getting better,” Bolland said, calling himself day-to-day. “Hopefully something clicks. I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes, and coach will make the decision and we’ll see what happens.”
Bolland’s return, whether it’s Saturday at Air Canada Centre, Sunday against the New Jersey Devils or beyond, would give the Leafs a bit of a different look on their third line.
“You bring a guy like Bolland back in the lineup, that’s a veteran presence and basically the exact type of player you need around this time of year,” Lupul said. “No offence to the guys that have filled his spot because they’ve done a good job, but our team looks a little tougher on paper with Bolland in kind of the third-line role.”
Toronto was 10-4-0 before Bolland took a skate blade to the back of the ankle in Vancouver from Canucks forward Zack Kassian. And Bolland’s strong start — six goals and four assists — was a large part of that success.
Even if that kind of offensive production doesn’t come back after missing more than four months, Bolland could help set the tone in the area Carlyle believes is crucial to getting the Leafs back on track.
“It’s about getting our forechecking game going,” Carlyle said. “When we’re a hockey club that’s hard to contend with, it’s because we skate and we’re on the forecheck, and that’s what we’re going to focus on: Getting the puck in and establish a forecheck, play a lot more of the game on the offensive side of it versus the defensive side of it.”
If Bolland is able to get back, it also helps out forward depth as the Leafs figure to go back to six defencemen with Paul Ranger out after suffering a neck injury on a scary play Wednesday against Tampa Bay. Unless Ranger is placed on long-term injured reserve, Toronto would have to send down two players to clear enough salary-cap space to activate Bolland off that list.
Centre Peter Holland and wingers Carter Ashton and Troy Bodie would seem the candidates to be sent to the AHL’s Marlies.
In goal, minor-league call-up Drew MacIntyre could be headed back if Bernier is deemed ready to go. MacIntyre backed up Reimer in each of the past three games but did not see any action.
Bernier would like to get back in for some game action after taking himself out of the March 13 game against his former team, the Los Angeles Kings. It would only be too perfect for the Laval, Que., native to do it against the Habs.
“Right now I don’t want to tell much more,” he said with a wry smile, “but it’s still day-to-day.”
So is the Leafs’ season. With 11 games remaining, they are tied with Montreal and the Washington Capitals for the fewest of any team in the Eastern Conference .
“We’ve given ourselves now a tougher task,” Carlyle said. “But the bottom line is, we just have to win our share of games. Not worry what anybody else is doing — win our share of games. Find a way to get our team playing back to the way we’re capable of playing.”