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Bruce Arthur: Jake Gardiner returns to the Leafs, trying to get that history off his back

Bruce Arthur: Jake Gardiner returns to the Leafs, trying to get that history off his back
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Morgan Rielly was asked if he will enter the playoffs with more belief in himself, and he thinks he will. More, he thinks he has to. He thinks they all do, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“Well, you earn it, too,” said Rielly, before Toronto’s 3-1 loss to the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning. “You work hard and you try to move your career forward and move your game forward, and with that comes confidence and believe in yourself and belief in the team.”

“And when we talk about playoffs, and we talk about the first-round playoff matchup, the belief has to be there that we can win. When two series go by and you lose them both ... you know, there’s almost a little bit of a mental block that you have to get past. That happens in all careers, and this is it for us. We believe that we can get past it, and we believe that if we work hard enough and play the right way we can win. And we can win against anyone.”

It’ll be the Boston Bruins, starting next Thursday, and that brings us around to Jake Gardiner. The 28-year-old defenceman made his return to the Toronto lineup Thursday night, and it wasn’t always assured; a back injury had sidelined him since Feb. 25, and Gardiner confirmed surgery was an option at one point.

“Make simple plays early, and then the rest will come to you,” Gardiner said before the game. “Pre-season’s always a little rusty, I think, but I haven’t had that much time off, so hopefully I’m better off than that.”

Jake came back, and he was fine. He didn’t skate effortlessly, but he was on the ice for more shot attempts for than against. He didn’t play heavy minutes. But he wasn’t a liability. The hope is this game and Saturday in Montreal give him enough runway before the game starts to really fly. And that’s where the question of belief comes in again. Rielly is first among defencemen in goals and third in points, so of course he should have more self-belief. Same with several Leafs.

And then there’s Gardiner. It’s been a strange season for him, with free agency looming and the salary cap presumably closing in. Overall, Toronto had scored 60.4 per cent of the goals at 5-on-5 with Gardiner on the ice; that’s third on the team behind Andreas Johnsson if you include Jake Muzzin, Gardiner’s presumed replacement next season, and his 30-game sample.

But Gardiner was also booed whenever he touched the puck by the Toronto crowd on Jan. 14, during a team-wide meltdown against Colorado in which Gardiner was the star. Booing a team is one thing; booing a single player for your team is personal. It’s probably that Gardiner’s big mistakes stick in the public imagination, while his better work — he led Leafs skaters in minutes both of the last two playoffs — is almost taken for granted.

“Yeah, but you know that description’s not fair by definition,” said Rielly, Gardiner’s former roommate. “You can’t say the bad things we really notice and the good things we just kind of sweep under the rug. It’s not fair. So I don’t really have an answer for you guys. Obviously, my opinions about the boos, you can probably guess what they are. I think it’s insane.

“But it is what it is, it’s already happened, we’ve moved past it, it was a long time ago and, as his teammates and his coaches, we all want him back because he’s very valuable to our team. He’s a good player. And we don’t care about anything other than his health and his play being on the ice for us during the playoffs. That’s it.”

Gardiner’s problem is some of his biggest mistakes happened in some of Toronto’s biggest moments in last 15 years. He was the last Leaf to touch the puck in overtime in Game 7 in Boston in 2013 to end the collapse; he blindly flung a puck right to Patrice Bergeron, who ended it. That was just bad luck.

And then in Game 7 in Boston last year, the nightmare. Minus-5; everything seemed to end up in the back of his net. And Gardiner said, gutted, “Had a lead going into the third period, and personally I got to be better. A lot of this game is on me. And it’s just not good enough, especially in a game like this. It’s the most important game of the season, and I didn’t show up. There’s not much I can say, really.”

“He’s a really, really good player,” said head coach Mike Babcock. “He’s a 50-point guy who is plus-20 or something like that. You just can’t get them. It’s so important, your D. We’ve been through — we’ve tried a real cycle here obviously (with Gardiner out), you’ve seen how hard it is to be a good D-man in the National Hockey League. He’s one of them.”

Gardiner seemed so happy to be back. In the second period Dermott put his glove down on the bench and then was looking for it, until Gardiner pulled it out from where he had been hiding it and grinned. Rielly and Gardiner have talked about those playoff losses; as Rielly says, “mostly about how we can win this time around, (how) we’ve lost a couple and maybe we’re due for a win. That kind of stuff. I mean, we’re not on the plane talking about breakouts and talking about offensive opportunities. It’s more based on belief and effort, because those two things are important, and more mentally preparing than anything.”

So now Gardiner will drag his own playoff history around on his still-recovering back, and you wonder whether he will be able to do it, and how much he can really believe. Leafs fans might realize what was lost without him, sure. The team sure did. Jake Gardiner is back, with a chance to make up for everything again.
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