Better late than never, Karel Pilar rejoined the playoffs for the Maple Leafs last night.
Toronto's hard-luck defenceman suffered a broken thumb in the middle of his breakout post-season with the club in 2002, was grounded one year by a rare viral infection that weakened his heart and then he was lost in the shuffle of new blue-line depth that flooded the team at the March trade deadline this year.
He had not played a game since March 11 but, when Ken Klee suffered a knee injury in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semi-final, Pilar was chosen ahead of Calle Johansson and Drake Berehowsky and tossed into a possible elimination game against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Johansson played four games in the first round against the Ottawa Senators, while Berehowsky was awaiting his first playoff start.
"I think this will be the biggest game in my life," Pilar, a 26-year-old Czech, said yesterday morning. "I'm not going to be nervous. I've tried to stay ready, just like the other guys."
For almost two months, Pilar and the other scrubs went all out in practices, travelled with the team and did the extra skating drills with workaholic assistant coach Keith Acton.
But all Pilar earned was a seat to watch playoff games on TV.
"I didn't do much during the day, but after the games started we would go and work out a bit more, maybe ride bikes and watch the game in the room," said Pilar, a veteran of the Czech Republic's gold-medal performance at the world championship in 2001.
The 6-foot-3, 207-pound Pilar played 50 games with the Leafs this season and did not miss any because of injury. But he accepted his fate when the team acquired Bryan Leetch and Johansson.
He realized he might have had to retire during the early stages of his heart ailment as doctors puzzled over exactly what was wrong with him.
"I appreciate life more right now," he said. "But I'm not happy just to be here. I want to contribute."
Pilar back in action
LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun
, Last Updated: 2:20 PM ET