Maple Leafs’ Nazem Kadri to play Tuesday vs. Lightning

Chris Johnston and Shawn MacKenzie tee up tonight's match between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning. Nazem Kadri returns from injury, while Frederik Gauthier could earn a spot on the penalty kill.

TORONTO – From the trainer’s room into the fire.

There will be no way for Nazem Kadri to ease his way back into the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup with the Tampa Bay Lightning visiting on Tuesday night.

"There’s definitely no dipping your toes in the water today," Kadri said after pronouncing himself fit to play.

Coming out of the Christmas break, he missed two games – and most of a third – because of whiplash. Kadri took an elbow to the head from Arizona’s Lawson Crouse in the first period of a game last Thursday and only managed a couple shifts afterwards.

While he was subjected to a concussion test from trainers, Kadri said he didn’t experience any concussion-like symptoms. But he was still in discomfort and sat out the losses in Colorado and Vegas that followed.

"I think it all came from neck soreness," said Kadri. "It put a little bit of pressure on my head just from my neck being sore and not being able to have that full rotation. I didn’t quite feel 100 per cent but now I’m ready to go."

The Leafs are nowhere near as dangerous without their second-line centre in the lineup. It forced Patrick Marleau to be moved back to the middle – something that’s happened more than the player or team would prefer this season – and put Auston Matthews under more duress, matchup-wise.

Against Tampa, Kadri will likely see action against the NHL’s most dangerous line – Steven Stamkos between Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov – although coach Mike Babcock hinted that he’ll be on a short leash.

"You’ve got to remember: We had a Christmas break and then he played, I think, two shifts," said Babcock. "So we’ve got to watch him closely. He’ll have to have those feet going."

Toronto will feature a much different look down the middle than Sunday’s 6-3 loss in Vegas after Frederik Gauthier was recalled from the AHL Marlies. The 22-year-old will dress for his first NHL game of the season against the Lightning, replacing Dominic Moore on the fourth line.

Gauthier played 21 games for the Leafs last season but suffered a serious hamstring injury in the AHL playoffs – the product of a dirty hit from Jake Dotchin, coincidentally now a member of the Lightning.

He might be up here to stay, too.

"I’ve liked Freddie better in the NHL than I’ve liked him in the American league the whole time he’s been here," said Babcock. "He’s played good for us when he’s been here. We had to do things in the summer because he got injured and we always planned on, ideally, he’d have an opportunity to play on this team.

"Now it’s real simple for him: He’s got to play well defensively, he’s got to penalty kill, he’s got to win faceoffs and he’s got to be abusive. If he can do all those things he can play every day here."

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Kadri has cooled off considerably after a hot start to the season. He went 10 games without a point before Christmas and then saw his drought hit 11 while playing less than four minutes against the Coyotes.

However, his priority against the Lightning will largely be in the defensive zone.

"They’re a great team," said Kadri. "They obviously have an exceptional first couple lines and we’ve got to be ready for their speed."

He seemed pretty excited about the challenge.

"It’s never fun being out of the lineup," said Kadri. "You always want to feel like you’re part of the team. Obviously when you’re injured, you start to drift a little bit and have to do your own thing and follow your own protocol.

"I’m just happy to be back."