Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner warms up prior to a game against the Ottawa Senators, at Scotiabank Arena, in Toronto, on Feb. 6, 2019.Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Jake Gardiner wants another crack at the Boston Bruins.

The polarizing Maple Leafs defenceman practised in a non-contact jersey on Thursday, his first action with teammates since suffering a back injury that’s kept him out of Toronto’s lineup since Feb. 25.

Gardiner had a miserable Game 7 against the Bruins in the first round of last spring’s playoffs, finishing an ugly minus-5 in a 7-4 loss that sent the Leafs packing.

And although the 28-year-old isn’t ready to knock shoulders in drills — let alone with opponents when the chips are down — he’s hoping to return in time for what, barring something unforeseen, will be a Toronto-Boston rematch.

“It’s huge,” Gardiner said when asked what the opportunity to get a second shot at the Bruins means. “Last year did not end well, obviously.

“Hopefully, this year is our year.”

Injury isn’t the only hurdle Gardiner has had to try and overcome in 2018-19.

Two big mental ones have no doubt weighed on him as well — the boos he heard from home fans in January and the reality that Toronto’s shrinking available salary cap space likely means the team won’t be able to afford his services beyond this season.

“Any time you’re hurt, it’s tough,” said Gardiner, who bravely met the media with tears in his eyes following that Game 7 debacle 11 months ago. “Being a professional athlete, you’re so competitive and want to play all the time. Of course, this is no different.”

Set to become an unrestricted free agent July 1 after eight years with the organization, Gardiner missed two games with back spasms before the all-star break, but Toronto general manager Kyle Dubas said earlier this month the two injuries aren’t related.

The high-risk, high-reward defender was the focus of increasing fan angst a few months ago during some rough outings, with jeers coming from some sections of the crowd at Scotiabank Arena.

But the numbers and the eye test show the Leafs are a much better team with Gardiner and Travis Dermott, who is also nearing a return from a shoulder injury suffered Feb. 27, in the lineup rather than some patchwork combination that includes Martin Marincin, Igor Ozighanov and Justin Holl.

Cemented in the Atlantic Division’s No. 3 spot, Toronto has surrendered the third-most goals in the NHL since Gardiner went down after allowing the ninth-fewest before the injury.

The Leafs are 8-5-3 in the 16 games he’s missed, including 3-4-2 over their last nine.

“Jake’s a great player,” fellow Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said. “When he’s not in the lineup you miss him a great deal because of his ability to move the puck and join the rush and break the puck out.

“He’s very valuable.”

Dermott, who took part in his first full on-ice session Thursday, said he hopes to play when the Leafs visit the Ottawa Senators on Saturday.

“Every team goes through its ups and downs,” the 22-year-old said of Toronto’s recent showings. “It’s definitely been tough not being able to help out and do my part.”

Gardiner has two goals and 27 assists in 60 games this season, while Dermott has 17 points (four goals, 13 assists) in the same number of outings.

“Not only do they play good defence, but they do good things offensively on the blue line and they keep the play alive and generate offence for your forwards,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said. “There’s two parts of the equation.”

Gardiner’s last game before going on the shelf came hours after the NHL trade deadline, meaning Dubas was without the option of potentially bringing in reinforcements from outside the organization.

The defenceman was coy when asked if surgery was discussed or when he will return to the lineup, but Thursday represented a big step.

“You want to be flying going into the playoffs,” Gardiner said. “You never want to be hurt, but especially at a time like this where you have such a good team.

“You want to be part of it.”

And especially now, when his time in Toronto appears to be nearing its end.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe