After ‘eternity’ away, Maple Leafs gain healthy players for return to action

Toronto Maple Leafs' William Nylander (88), Morgan Rielly (44) and T.J. Brodie (78) celebrate a goal against the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. (CP/file)

TORONTO – Although the Toronto Maple Leafs’ plans (like everyone else’s these days) are subject to change, they do have a hockey game on the schedule Saturday.

Finally.

And if their date against the Ottawa Senators does go forward in front of 1,000 fans at Scotiabank Arena, the New Year’s Day affair will surely be coated in rust and relief.

Since the Maple Leafs’ last zigzagged across your TV sets, in a 5-1 thumping of the Edmonton Oilers on Dec. 14, 18 days will have passed, 15 players (plus seven staff members) will have tested positive for our contagion’s latest incarnation, and eight games have been postponed.

“Happy to be back,” said a recovered Travis Dermott, feeling positive this week after testing negative.

“Not sure the number of days, but it’s felt like an eternity being away from the rink and being away from the guys.”

Yet even with healthy Maple Leafs and coaches clearing quarantine, passing a final cardiac test, and returning to a run of five practices in six days after the organization’s Christmas shutdown, uncertainty and caution lingers.

“The whole team hasn’t gotten it. We don’t want anyone else to get it. So, we’ve gotta double down on being safe,” warned head coach Sheldon Keefe, who needed to mask up inside his own home during the break.

“It’s super, super contagious. You can be following all the precautions and still get it,” a recovered Alexander Kerfoot added.

“We have to deal with it as a team, as a league and as a society. It’s unfortunate. But it’s just the world we live in right now.”

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Before their mid-December outbreak in Western Canada — plus another that touched 24(!) Marlies and five AHL staff at home on the farm — the Maple Leafs’ world had been going swimmingly.

The club’s .700 winning percentage places is good for fourth overall. Both special teams rank top-10 league-wide, as do their goal scoring and goal prevention.

Bonus days off granted Mitch Marner (shoulder) and Rasmus Sandin (knee) extra time to rehab their injuries, and veteran Jason Spezza time to successfully appeal his suspension.

The NHL’s shortened Omicron isolation period (reduced from 10 to five days for U.S.-based teams) and reinstallation of taxi squads will also assist a roster that pulls on all tools necessary to trot the salary cap’s tightrope.

To be sure, flulike symptoms and stagnant legs have drained some of the players’ momentum. Some Leafs confessed to Keefe that their first practice this week “felt worse than the first day of training camp.”

Captain John Tavares admitted to “fighting through fatigue.” And yet, having two post-Christmas games delayed has allowed the Leafs ample practice time to ramp up for Saturday’s return.

Meanwhile, Toronto’s Battle of Ontario rival, the Senators, cancelled Thursday’s practice entirely, citing precautionary reasons. That raises a yellow flag for the weekend.

Sure, the Leafs’ blue line will be depleted for a spell, and conditions for returning are far from optimal.

But the whole league is steering through potholes. And if the Leafs can dig in and pick up from where they left off, they should be in better position than most.

“Our mindset has to be sharp and dialled in,” Tavares said. “No doubt, it’ll be a challenge.”

One-Timers: With Petr Mrazek, Ilya Mikheyev, David Kämpf, Rasmus Sandin and goalie coach Steve Briere all joining practice Thursday, only four Leafs remain in COVID protocol: Morgan Rielly, William Nylander, Jake Muzzin and Timothy Liljegren…. Sandin is progressing toward a healthy return as early as Saturday…. GM Kyle Dubas on the recovery of Marner: “Certainly not a player that we would rush along whatsoever.” … Spezza’s advice to the schedule-makers trying to optimize February’s scrapped Olympic break and squeeze in a full 82: “If need be, maybe they extend the season by a week or so to allow us not to cram things in too much. I think it’s important for the safety of players that we don’t just cram things in for the sake of cramming in it.”

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