John Tavares’ surprise skate gives Maple Leafs an emotional lift

Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe has no real update on John Tavares' return to the lineup, but says he's progressing really well, and getting back on the ice is a good sign, and having him with the team has been a huge lift.

TORONTO – From FaceTime to ice time.

That is the quantum leap John Tavares has made between games 4 and 5.

Incredible, really, to see the Toronto Maple Leafs captain skating at Scotiabank Arena Thursday morning, just one week since he was stretchered off the same sheet.

Footage from Tavares’s light 18-minute skills session spread like good news.

Considering the gut-wrenching scene of Game 1, in which the star centre’s face collided with Corey Perry’s knee at high speed, the sight of Tavares with blades on his feet and a puck on his stick was a pleasant surprise to the hockey world.

“I think that’s the kind of the same reaction from us. We’re obviously very happy to see him, and he’s in good spirits,” teammate Justin Holl said. “He looks healthy. Obviously, he’s got a couple things he’s got to work through before he’s ready to go and in game shape, but it’s really an encouraging sign to see him here.

“It’s just good for our team, and good for us emotionally and mentally.”

Added Morgan Rielly: “That’s huge having him back at the rink here today, getting the chance to talk to him and to spend time around him…. We’re lucky to have him back so soon.”

Tavares suffered both a concussion and a knee injury last Thursday. A two-week timeline was given for the knee.

Coach Sheldon Keefe had no official update on a return but reported that “progress has been very good on both fronts.”

With the Leafs having a chance to eliminate the Montreal Canadiens on home ice and advance to the second round for the first time in 17 years, Tavares participated in the club’s Game 5 morning meeting. (Keefe wasn’t sure if Tavares will watch the game in-person.)

“Really, since the morning after his injury, it’s been trending towards this. He’s been communicating, talking to the guys a lot, so it’s not completely new in that sense,” Keefe said. “Certainly, having him in-person is as a nice lift for the guys.

“We are expecting our best game of the series.”

Despite the frightening nature of last week’s injury — a rush to St. Michael’s Hospital was required to rule out damage to his skull, neck and spine — Tavares reached out to his fellow Leafs within hours, helped ease their concerns and redirect their focus.

Unable to travel with them to Montreal for back-to-back wins Monday and Tuesday, Tavares popped up on FaceTime to virtually celebrate with the boys:

“Yeah, that was great,” said Holl, his face lighting up. “You’re riding a high every time you win a game. Then you come in the locker room, you see him on FaceTime, it feels good. It feels good just in the sense that we’re doing the right things to get him back closer playing.”

One-Timers: Toronto’s other injured top-six forward, Nick Foligno (day-to-day), also skated Thursday morning. He is “making good progress,” per Keefe, but will sit out a third consecutive game…. Rasmus Sandin draws back into the lineup after getting scratched in Game 4, replacing Travis Dermott on the third pairing…. Erik Gustafsson gets the tap in place of Brett Kulak on the Canadiens’ blue line, as coach Dominique Ducharme hopes he can spark their ineffective power play. This marks a fifth straight healthy scratch for Alexander Romanov.

Maple Leafs Game 5 projected lines:

Hyman-Matthews-Marner

Galchenyuk-Kerfoot-Nylander

Mikheyev-Engvall-Simmonds

Thornton-Brooks-Spezza

Rielly-Brodie

Muzzin-Holl

Sandin-Bogosian

Campbell

Andersen

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