Kapanen closes in on return as Leafs aim to snap out of funk

NHL insider Anthony Stewart joins George Rusic to discuss the importance of home-ice advantage for the Maple Leafs as they appear to be headed for a first round matchup with the Bruins.

TORONTO – Kasperi Kapanen had never endured anything like it before.

It was a “subtle play” on March 9 in Edmonton, the winger says, avoiding specifics, that concussed him for the first time. He didn’t think much of the knock at the time and had no issue finishing the victory, but in the hours after the buzzer had sounded symptoms crept in.

So Kapanen approached team doctors, and they held him back all of last week — the most defensively porous stretch of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ season.

“It’s hard to describe. You just don’t feel like yourself. You feel like you’re in a bit of a fog. I felt slowed down. It’s not fun,” Kapanen said Monday, returning for the first time since the injury. “I’m just happy to be back practising with the guys today, and we’ll see about tomorrow.

“I just feel like myself now.”

The reinjection of Kapanen’s speed and feistiness may be viewed as Step One in the Maple Leafs’ suddenly difficult task of feeling like themselves again, after a disastrous and dramatic four-game stumble that rattled their confidence and could ultimately cost them home ice in Round 1 of the playoffs. (Hey, look, Boston sniper David Pastrnak also returned to practice this morning.)

Ready for full contact, Kapanen wheeled around on the third line with Nazem Kadri and Patrick Marleau, bumping Connor Brown to a more suitable role on the fourth unit with Nic Petan and Trevor Moore.

“Back-to-play protocol is really important, especially anything to do with the head. Kap’ probably could’ve gone in two games ago, but I think it’s important we handle the situations in the right way. That’s why we’ve got a medical team. That’s why the coach doesn’t decide when you’re playing,” said coach Mike Babcock, relieved to see a core player return.

“Kappy has got great speed, he’s got tremendous work ethic, [and] he’s a really good penalty killer.”

Centre Frederik Gauthier suffered a foot injury. Gauthier did not participate in practice, will not travel with the Leafs to Nashville (Tuesday) or Buffalo (Wednesday) and will be re-evaluated Thursday.

While Kapanen’s jump back into the lineup is no doubt welcome, it’s the defencemen — Jake Gardiner (back) and Travis Dermott (shoulder) — whose returns are more anticipated.

The recent rash of Toronto’s defensive injuries has conspired with suddenly spotty goaltending to make the organization take another hard look at its blueline depth.

Babcock recently tossed around the idea of calling up AHL super rookie Rasmus Sandin with Toronto Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe.

The left-shooting 19-year-old is currently tearing up the minors, putting up 11 points over his past seven outings while logging heavy minutes.

Ultimately, the decision-makers would rather Sandin over-develop in the farms system, so he can make an impact when he does arrive, like Kapanen.

“Let’s not get in our own way because we’re feeling a little tension. Forget that. We got good players here,” Babcock said. “Adversity is really important for you in life. When you don’t have some, you think you should get some so you can get better. When you get it, you don’t want it. We have it right now. Let’s pull together.

“The other thing in life: If you own it. What I mean by that, as the head coach of this club, this is my responsibility. If I’m the goaltender, I’m D, whoever I am, if I own it, I have the chance to fix it right away.”

Monday’s fixing ahead of Tuesday’s test in Nashville was focused on sharpening a faulty breakout and limiting turnovers, on those goal-hungry forwards helping out a defence that’s been sorely exposed.

The Leafs’ blueline is hoping for a Kapanen-esque health bump from Gardiner or Dermott, or even AHL stud Calle Rosen (foot), who might be closest of all them.

“You’re supposed to build the best program you can, so you have as much depth so you don’t miss people. If you have enough, you don’t miss a beat and you just keep going,” Babcock said.

“There’s other teams that have done a better job when different players are out than we have in keeping on going. That just tells you what state we’re at, and you just gotta keep adding better players.”

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