TORONTO — If absence truly makes the heart grow fonder, the fans will greet Jake Gardiner’s return here with a standing ovation.
Life has not gotten better for the Toronto Maple Leafs without the polarizing defenceman, not even close. They have allowed 47 even-strength goals against since Gardiner was sidelined with a disc issue in his back, better than only four teams you don’t want to be keeping company with in March: Ottawa, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Buffalo.
That’s why Mike Babcock has been hoping and praying for the medical clearance Gardiner received before Thursday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"[He’s been missed] in the room, on the ice, I mean everywhere," said Babcock. "He’s a really, really good player. He moves the puck real good, he’s way better defensively than people think, an important player on our team. He’s a 50-point guy whose plus-20 or something like that, you just can’t get ‘em."
It is easily the longest stretch of games Toronto has been without the 28-year-old since he was acquired from Anaheim in a February 2011 trade. It was also a look into the near future with Gardiner set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
That his return is being hailed now comes with a whiff of irony since we are only three months removed from fans making Gardiner the target of boos at Scotiabank Arena. It remains a sensitive subject in the Leafs dressing room, where Morgan Rielly spoke Thursday about the "unfair" treatment his friend has been subjected to.
"Obviously my opinions about the boos, I mean you can probably guess what they are," he said. "I think it’s insane."
Rielly seemed genuinely perplexed about what might have motivated the paying customers to do that during an otherwise forgotten Jan. 15 loss to Colorado.
Gardiner may have fallen on the sword after going minus-five in last year’s Game 7 loss to Boston, but Rielly doesn’t understand how a whole series could be pinned on one player. Just like his head coach, he sees so many positives in Gardiner’s ability to break the puck out and get his teammates playing offence — an attribute that far outweighs the occasional blunder.
The biggest question hanging over his return in Game 81 is how effective he might be, and how soon.
Gardiner acknowledged that surgery was seriously contemplated during his recovery period — "we decided that it wasn’t needed at this time," he said — and Babcock was anticipating a tentative reintroduction to high-speed game action against one of the top NHL teams in a generation.
"It’s no different than when you hurt your ankle," said Babcock. "You come back, the first time you get hit, you think you broke your ankle. You come to the bench and two seconds later you feel good. The same thing’s going to happen to him.
"He’s going to get hit, then he’s going to come to the bench and he’s going to think ‘Oh my god, the wheels are off."’
There are no guarantees it will go well. Gardiner hasn’t technically participated in a full practice with contact — only shedding the red "don’t hit me" sweater for a couple morning skates — and Babcock’s tone when speaking about his return has been far more hopeful than certain.
If the playoffs weren’t starting in a week, it seems unlikely he’d be suiting up against the Lightning in Toronto’s final home game of the regular season.
"What we do is we get him out there and see what’s going on and then see how he’s doing," said Babcock. "We’re cognizant of what’s gone on and what’s coming."
In theory, it presents the player with an opportunity to change some perceptions.
Gardiner is pushing aside any personal motivations by battling through injury to return now, prioritizing the team’s performance over his impending payday. Plus, it should already be pretty clear how significant his impact is on the Leafs given how the last five-plus weeks have gone without him.
"I think that peoples’ opinions of his play can be bold sometimes, but I’m not going to start rattling off things about players that I feel like they’ve been misrepresented or mistreated," said Rielly. "He’s a good player, he’s played for the team for a long time. He’s been a very good player and hopefully he gets back and he’s part of our playoff series."
The notion of facing Boston without him isn’t a comfortable one.