It has been more than five weeks since Riley Nash joined the Maple Leafs, but Monday was the first time the 32-year-old centre got to participate in a full-contact practice with the team.
Acquired from Columbus on April 9 in exchange for a conditional seventh-round 2022 draft pick, Nash has been sidelined for an extraordinary number of reasons. In a year that will hopefully never get repeated, he has switched teams in the middle of a pandemic, had to nurse a knee injury, and essentially waited around to play.
“It’s definitely not something I have been through before,” Nash says. “I don’t think I met many guys on the team for three-and-a-half weeks. I was traded and moved here, went into quarantine, and they were on the road for the next week and a half.”
He expected to meet his new teammates upon their return, but then that was delayed because he had to go into quarantine again when William Nylander was thought to have come in contact with someone suspected to have COVID-19.
“It has been strange,” Nash says. “I have just tried to get acclimated as best as possible. It is definitely a challenge, but at playoff time it doesn’t matter. I just have to hit the ground running.”
Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe expects Nash to be in the lineup when Toronto plays Montreal on Thursday at Scotiabank Arena when the teams meet in the first game of their best-of-seven first-round series.
It is the first time the long-time rivals will meet in the postseason since 1979, when the Canadiens swept them in four games in the quarterfinals en route to winning their fourth straight Stanley Cup. The two teams met 10 times this year during the regular season, with Toronto coming out on top on seven occasions.
It is odd for a player to make his debut with a team in the playoffs, but Nash looks forward to it. Toronto added him at the trade deadline largely for his veteran presence. He has played 578 regular-season contests in 10 NHL seasons and 32 games in the postseason. If he is in the lineup, it will be his first action since April 4.
It will be his first taste of the hostility between franchises that first met in 1917.
“You read about the history and hear about it,” Nash says. “They are two Original Six teams that have had a lot of success, but maybe not in the last 20 or 25 years, so both are looking to get back to that storied level.
“It should be fun. I know the last time these teams met in a series one won the Stanley Cup. That is a pretty cool note in history, and we are looking to repeat that.”
Montreal expects to have goalie Carey Price and winger Brendan Gallagher back after each missed significant time because of injuries. Price has not played since he sustained a concussion against the Edmonton Oilers on April 19. Gallagher broke his right thumb when he blocked a shot by one of his teammates against the Oilers on April 5. He missed the final 21 games of the regular season.
Both were scheduled to play for the Laval Rocket of the American Hockey League against the Toronto Marlies on Monday night.
“It is a golden opportunity,” Price said about the coming series on Sunday after practising with the Canadiens. “We are all excited to play. We’re looking forward to getting into that first game and trying to build some momentum.”
Nash played on teams in Boston that eliminated the Maple Leafs in 2017 and 2018, and for the Blue Jackets when they knocked Toronto out of the Stanley Cup qualifying tournament last year.
“Last year, the circumstances were very unique” he says. “It was such a short series. Sometimes when that happens a bounce can go one way or the other and you can’t quite establish what you want in a full seven-game series.”
Nash realizes he is fortunate to be out of Columbus, which finished last among eight teams in the NHL’s Central Division and far out of the playoffs. The opportunity he has is not lost on him or Nick Foligno, the 33-year-old the Maple Leafs also acquired from the Blue Jackets at the trade deadline.
“We’re not getting any younger, so you don’t want the opportunity to slide away,” Nash says. “It’s nice to have a friend along for the ride.”