Lombardi's return a triumph

Maple Leafs forward Matthew Lombardi participates in pre-game skate before facing the Red Wings in...

Maple Leafs forward Matthew Lombardi participates in pre-game skate before facing the Red Wings in Toronto, Ont., Oct. 1, 2011. (ALEX UROSEVIC/QMI Agency)

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:50 AM ET

TORONTO - Matthew Lombardi’s a lot like that little French Canadian boy in the beloved short story The Hockey Sweater.

He grew up in the province of Quebec longing to wear the Le Bleu-Blanc-Rouge of the Montreal Canadiens, but was eventually forced to don the blue and white of the dreaded Toronto Maple Leafs.

The difference is, it wasn’t Lombardi’s mother who made him wear a Leafs sweater (after the T. Eaton company sent a Leafs sweater to the little boy by mistake), but Leafs GM Brian Burke, who traded for Lombardi this July in a deal with the Nashville Predators.

Another difference is, Lombardi had no qualms pulling on the Leafs jersey, whereas the little boy prayed to God to send moths to eat the Leafs sweater. (They really don’t like the Leafs in Quebec).

In any event, he looked pretty damn good in the blue and white on Thursday night, scoring the first Leafs goal of the season, a short-handed mark against his hometown team, at 0:33 of the second.

The goal, a rebound into an open net past a sprawling Carey Price, turned out to be the winner, as the Leafs opened the 2011-12 regular season at the Air Canada Centre by downing the Habs, 2-0.

For Lombardi, the goal, and the win, was an incredible way to celebrate what has been a long, tough journey back to the NHL.

The former Victoriaville junior star was forced to sit out much of the Leafs training camp, still recovering from an injury suffered just two games into the Nashville Predators season last year when he fell head-first into the boards. The concussion symptoms lasted through the summer and Lombardi was only cleared to play in the final pre-season game of the season last Saturday against the Detroit Red Wings.

He wasn’t sure what to expect in his first regular season game with the Leafs, other than he’d be centering the fourth line with tough guys Mike Brown and Jay Rosehill, and killing a lot of penalties — which he, and the Leafs, did to perfection, holding Montreal to 0-5 on the power play. He certainly didn’t expect to score, but it was a very pleasant and unexpected surprise. So unexpected, he almost forgot to celebrate.

“I didn’t know what to do,” said Lombardi, who skated to the bench almost immediately after the goal. “It was the worst celebration of all time. The puck was right there, waiting for me just to put it in. It felt unreal. It kind of happened so fast.”

What hasn’t been fast has been his return to action. Lombardi said he always knew he would be back, just not when.

It was almost right after Burke pulled the trigger on a trade on July 3, which sent Brett Lebda and Robert Slaney to Nashville for Lombardi and Cody Franson, did he finally start to feel better.

For the Leafs, acquiring Lombardi was a gamble, given the nature of concussions. But he’s now symptom-free and getting close to optimum game shape, and coach Ron Wilson expects the speedy centre to continue to be a major contributor on the penalty kill, a part of the Leafs game which really suffered last season (28th in the NHL with a 77.4% success rate). Wilson said he will likely give Lombardi more minutes as the season progresses and maybe give him some more offensive responsibilities. Lombardi has had some pretty good seasons, points-wise, in the NHL, recording 53 points for the Phoenix Coyotes two seasons ago.

But for now, the gentlemanly centre is content to contribute in any way with the Leafs, and is just thrilled to be back playing after everything he has gone through.

“It’s such a long process, coming back from a concussion,” Lombardi said. “You obviously get some negatives in your head. I just want to get back healthy, get my life normal again, and if I can play hockey, that’s great.”

“Being in a game like this, a tight game, 1-0, 2-0, is just so much fun to be a part of,” he added.


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