Quick Shifts: Maple Leafs return and Sandin's whole body is shaking

Neal Pionk discussed his recovery from a concussion, his hit that injured Maple Leafs defenceman Rasmus Sandin, and the hit he took from Jason Spezza.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Fun is overrated anyway.

1. Rasmus Sandin’s first taste of hockey in 25 days — 10 of them spent in utterly asymptomatic quarantine; all of them spent rehabbing from a dangerous knee-on-knee collision — was a visceral experience.

“My whole body was shaking, I was so happy to be back on the ice,” Sandin beamed after Thursday’s practice.

Yep. Practice. We talkin’ ’bout practice.

Sandin may, like 21 other members of the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, have tested positive for a strain of COVID-19, but his taste for the game only intensified.

Absence makes the heart yearn.

So simple things — in-class learning, an uncancelled concert, line rushes and puck battles with your mates — are savoured. As the positive tests mount, we scrounge for silver linings.

“I’m just super stoked to be back. If I have to see something positive from this COVID, it’s that it gave me an extra week to 10 days to recover my leg completely,” says Sandin, who believes he’ll be ready to hop the boards Saturday.

Coach Sheldon Keefe was impressed by the 21-year-old’s jump after nearly four weeks off the sheet. He noted Sandin "looked really good and confident" immediately upon return.

“When I got the answer that I was positive, that was a big shock for me,” Sandin said.

“I didn’t feel one thing, and I felt like I had a lot of energy. Being inside for 10 days, it’s not what you want.”

Now his close friend and frequent partner, Timothy Liljegren, is enduring the same hiatus.

With Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin and William Nylander all rejoining practice Friday, Liljegren is the lone Maple Leaf remaining in protocol.

“He was a little bit pissed. I was just trying to cheer him up a little bit. Toss a couple of bad Swedish jokes at him,” Sandin said.

“He's handling it well. Also a mentally strong guy. He's been playing really good hockey lately.”

2. Sandin’s breakout campaign was temporarily halted when Winnipeg Jets defenceman Neal Pionk clipped him in that wild early-December doozy.

Sandin needed two teammates to help him off the ice and no doubt feared the worst.

“I was in a lot of pain,” explained Sandin, who was on crutches for days following the collision. “Luckily, when I got the results back, it wasn’t as bad as I thought.”

Sandin did hear Pionk express remorse following the hit, for which the player was suspended two games.

“I think that shows a lot of respect that we have for one another in the game,” Sandin said. “I’m sure he didn’t do it on purpose and try to actually go for my knee and try to injure me.

“Stuff can happen in hockey. You have to own up to what can happen on the ice, even though it wasn’t on purpose, and I really appreciate him saying that. It was really nice to see, for sure.”

3. All things considered, the timing of the virus running through the Leafs “like wildfire,” as Wayne Simmonds put it, has been rather fortunate. With six consecutive postponements to wrap 2021, Toronto escaped having to play a game shorthanded.

And most of the room has been through the gauntlet and now has the peace of mind of having the antibodies.

“There’s different ways to look at it, right?” Keefe reflects.

“Some of the paranoia of not having it takes its toll on you just the same.”

Michael Bunting is a rare Leaf untouched. Yet he still isolated over the break, when a stroll outside ranked as a highlight of the day.

“I was basically taking it day by day and waiting to see to if my name would pop up positive. Fortunately enough, it hasn’t yet. So, knock on wood,” Bunting says.

“I try not to worry about it. If I do, it can drive people crazy.”

A feeling of excitement is bubbling in Leafland, with the full complement of forwards reuniting for the first time since Marner’s shoulder was accidentally injured by Muzzin a month ago.

“Mitch hasn’t skipped a beat,” Bunting says. “He’s making plays. He’s playing fast. It hasn’t seemed like he has missed any time. It’s fun having him back on our line.”

4. It’s one thing to say you’re disappointed that NHLers will not be participating in the ’22 Olympics. It’s another to rail against the decision-makers the way Canada’s Brad Marchand did this week:

Marchand is still at the top of his game at age 33. He’ll be 37 when Milano Cortina rolls around in 2026 and likely a long shot at best.

I get the frustration and don’t mind him speaking out.

We already dwelled on the bad news here, but we especially feel for the aging stars who wanted one last shot at a medal.

“It doesn’t get easier as you get older and the chances go by,” John Tavares says. “Definitely a tough pill to swallow and we would love to be going.”

5. Usually it takes a few matches for the world juniors to suck me in, but the early-tournament performances by Canada’s Owen Power and 16-year-old phenom Conor Bedard — who hit Austria with the four — had me all amped up for New Year’s Eve test versus the Finns.

Here’s hoping the IIHF finds a creative way to finish the tournament, for the kids’ sake.

“Sucks to see that happen,” says Sandin, who repped Sweden in the 2019 and 2020 world juniors.

“For myself, the world junior was an unbelievable experience. It’s a lot of fun coming together with teammates that you’ve been playing with before, players your own age and getting back together. We’ll see if they can [play it] at another time of the year.”

Stray thought: If you’re a rebuilding team, how early is too early to start planning the 2022-23 tank job for Bedard?

Not since Arizona (56 points, minus-102 goal differential) and Buffalo (54 points, minus-113 goal differential) in 2014-15 — during their failed efforts to land some other Connor — are we likely to see a couple squads be so overt in their efforts to maximize their lottery odds.

6. Response to the chopped attendance in Ontario (maximum 1,000 fans permitted at home game for the next three weeks) is varied.

“There are no ideal circumstances,” said Keefe, diplomatically. “Everybody is trying to do their best to just make sure the games can get played. We’re just grateful we get to come to work every day. No matter what the circumstances are, it’s on us to make the best of it.”

Meanwhile, Ottawa’s American-born captain, Brady Tkachuk, hasn’t been afraid to criticize a decision made by Doug Ford’s government.

“I wish it was a full crowd at [Saturday’s] match,” Tkachuk said. “I know the province put in rules to keep people safe. I just wish they gave people the choice, the decision to come to games instead of just taking it away. It stings. We’d love to have New Year's Day, start off the fresh year and have a full house. But that's not the case.”

7. Attendance should be no issue at the Winter Classic in Minnesota.

Temperature for tonight’s evening tilt, however, might be.

Last we checked the forecast at Target Field for the Wild-Blues showdown had a “feels like” temperature of –22°C. Windchill, gusts, a chance of snow? Bring it on.

The NHL is prepared to heat the ice if necessary so it doesn’t chip and the event can go on as planned.

8. Welcome back, Patrik Laine, for your goals and your quotes.

“I wish Jake [Voracek] would shoot those every now and then, but I was kind of expecting him to pass it back, and it worked out,” Laine said, after skating a season-high 21:57 and scoring in his first game since Nov. 3.

“That’s why he has 10 goals in his career and a thousand assists. He knows what he’s doing.”

9. Quote of the Week goes to pending free agent Evgeni Malkin.

“I’m not thinking about my contract, not thinking about money. I’m a pretty rich guy.”

(Malkin’s estimated career earnings exceed $116 million.)

10. Nylander’s quarantine was just a steady stream of Call of Duty. A bunch of his buddies were off work, so they threw on headsets and put their thumbs to work.

As for goalie Petr Mrazek?

“I played ping-pong a lot in the last 10 days,” Mrazek said. “It was good for reaction and movement and stuff like that.”

11. Maple Leafs highly touted right-shot defence prospect Töpi Niemela, 19, signed another one-year extension with Karpat, his Finnish Elite League club, which places him under contract through 2022-23.

Niemela is lighting it up in his third pro tour overseas. The extension gives him some stability and a second option, to the AHL Marlies, should he fail to make the Maple Leafs as a 20-year-old out of 2022’s training camp.

Toronto has yet to sign Niemela to his entry-level contract, but this new deal won’t get in the way of that.

12. We all make mistakes.

It helps if we make like Dylan Larkin and own them.

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