There is a chance the Toronto Maple Leafs could take their biggest step this season toward repairing the chronic fatigue that dogs their defensive game.
Centre Dave Bolland took part in an entire practice Friday, playing with wingers Mason Raymond and David Clarkson, for the first time since he was lost Nov. 2 to a severed tendon in his ankle. While some may think the Leafs' defensive woes are so severe the return of a third-line centre can hardly cure them, others beg to differ.
"No offence to the guys who have filled the spot," winger Joffrey Lupul said. "But our team looks a little tougher on paper with Bolland. He's a key guy for us."
If Bolland can come back – both he and head coach Randy Carlyle said a decision will be made Saturday afternoon – it could not come at a better time for the Leafs. They are reeling because their defensive work of late got even worse than its usual sorry standard, and they will take a three-game losing string into Saturday's game against the Montreal Canadiens.
The Leafs are three points behind the Canadiens in the Atlantic Division race, with 80, and their grip on the first wild-card playoff spot in the NHL's Eastern Conference is tenuous, as the New York Rangers sat two behind them, with both the Detroit Red Wings and Washington Capitals three behind, before Friday's games.
There is a chance No. 1 goaltender Jonathan Bernier may also be back from a groin injury to face the Habs. He will also be a game-time decision, but is still not practising full-out.
Since Bolland is easily the Leafs' best two-way forward, a centre who can crash and bang on the fore-check as well as come back in his own end and separate opponents from the puck, his presence is urgently required.
"It's about getting our fore-checking game going," Carlyle said of a solution to the defensive problems. "We're a hockey club that's hard to contend with when we skate and are on the fore-check. That's what we're going to focus on."
And who knows? Maybe Bolland could even resuscitate Clarkson's career, his gritty game with some scoring having inexplicably disappeared since he signed that fat contract with the Leafs in the off-season.
However, any optimism about Bolland must be tempered with the fact he missed 52 games and then had a setback in his rehabilitation a couple of weeks ago. It will be difficult for him to make an immediate impact like he did in the fall, at the start of his first season with his hometown team.
In his 15 games with the Leafs, Bolland had 10 points (the same number as Clarkson in 49 games) and Toronto jumped out to a 10-5-0 start.
"You can do enough bag skating and work on the ice with the team," Bolland said. "It's a little different when you're on the ice with guys you don't like, guys who want to hurt you. Go in the corners and it's not like what we do out there [in practice]. It will be tough the first few shifts, but it will feel great getting back.
"You think about the first shift, always. The feet won't be there, the wind probably won't be there. It's not going to be an easy one."
Bernier took shots in full equipment for the first time since he was injured nine days ago. But he didn't sound confident he can play Saturday, which means James Reimer, who is under the gun after two consecutive ordinary outings on a team that needs superb goaltending to survive, will probably get his third start in a row.
"It's a critical time, so I want to make sure I'm 100 per cent and my body feels pretty good," Bernier said.
The Canadiens received some bad news on the injury front Friday. Forward Brandon Prust will miss the rest of the regular season with an undisclosed injury.
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