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Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Mark Giordano skates during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Boston Bruins, on Nov. 2, in Boston.Steven Senne/The Associated Press

Given the defensive frailties that the Toronto Maple Leafs have displayed in recent games, ranging from an inability to hold on to leads to failing to stop a beach ball in Buffalo, Thursday’s news that Mark Giordano is ready to return could hardly have come at a more opportune time.

The veteran blueliner has been out since breaking a finger on Nov. 28 against the Florida Panthers, and while Toronto has posted a respectable 6-3-3 record without the former captain of the Calgary Flames, the team has looked exposed, dropping three of its past four.

That run included Wednesday’s self-induced implosion against the rival Ottawa Senators, as well as last week’s blowout loss in the Queen City, when the Leafs goaltending was left to fend for itself as the defence seemingly took the night off against the Sabres.

Heading into back-to-back games Friday in Columbus before returning home Saturday to face the Carolina Hurricanes, the time is seemingly right to work the blueliner back into the fray. The need for improved defence is especially heightened this season, given the closeness of the division race, with just six points separating the first-place Boston Bruins from the third-place Leafs, with the Florida Panthers – last season’s Stanley Cup finalists – sandwiched in between.

“Last year, the division was sort of out of reach right from the start of the season really,” Giordano said Thursday, referencing the record-setting Bruins, who established NHL highs with 65 wins and 135 points.

“Now it just seems like everyone’s sort of still in it tight, and that’s why it’s really important to get on some nice runs if we can and avoid obviously losing a bunch of games in a row.”

Though there’s never really a good time to take time off, whether through injury or otherwise, as the oldest active player in the NHL, with 1,122 regular-season games, Giordano acknowledged that a rest at this point might prove beneficial later.

Besides which, given that the injury was to his hand, it did nothing to prevent him skating throughout his month on the sidelines, so he’s also crossing his fingers it won’t take him long to ramp back up to NHL speed.

“Let’s hope so,” the 40-year-old said. “You definitely feel anytime you get like a break off of games, you don’t deal with that stress and that anxiety that games bring, so I think mentally it can be a reset and then physically obviously I do feel like I have some good jump in me. Hopefully that’ll translate into games.”

Even before Wednesday’s home loss to Ottawa, head coach Sheldon Keefe was already excited about the prospect of a rare team practice on Thursday to work on eradicating some of the bad tendencies that have worked their way into the Leafs’ play. While the manner of that defeat gave him an extra few things to chew over – the lack of compete level at times being chief among them – the chance to work Giordano back into the defensive rotation was welcome.

The 2019 Norris Trophy winner was paired with Timothy Liljegren – 16 years his junior – at practice, with the Swede not long back in the lineup himself after spending six weeks out with a lower-body injury.

Giordano has an underappreciated ability to move the puck through all three zones of the ice, Keefe said, before adding that his return forces the coaching staff to make tough roster decisions. But competition for places is something that every NHL head coach strives for, he added.

“I do like that,” Keefe said, mentioning Simon Benoit and William Lagesson as two blueliners who have stepped up when given their opportunity. “I think that’s what’s come up out of this, right?”

The game in Columbus against the Blue Jackets – a team the Leafs have faced twice in two weeks – also hands Ilya Samsonov the chance to try to regain some confidence. The Russian goaltender, who led Toronto into the second round of last season’s playoffs, has looked a shell of his former self at times this year, with an .871 save percentage through 14 games. Keefe confirmed that the 26-year-old will start Friday.

Samsonov hasn’t seen any action since he gave up five goals on 19 shots last Thursday in Buffalo, and has gone 1-1-3 in his past five starts with the Leafs. However, the NHL’s Christmas break allowed him to get away to Washington to see family and friends.

“I’ve always kind of felt that anytime you take a break, such as the three-day break we took, I think those tend to be difficult on the goalies,” Keefe said. “They’re so used to their routines and they’re so used to seeing the pucks and seeing releases and all these kinds of things.

“So to have, for Sammy, additional time, I think really benefits him.”

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