Leafs are kings of the throw-ins

Maple Leafs forward Matthew Lombardi jumps on the back of Islanders defenceman Dylan Reese at the...

Maple Leafs forward Matthew Lombardi jumps on the back of Islanders defenceman Dylan Reese at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ont., Jan. 23, 2012. (MICHAEL PEAKE/QMI Agency)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:24 PM ET

TORONTO - On the summer day the Maple Leafs traded for Matthew Lombardi, there was elation around Toronto. A hockey elation that had nothing to do with his acquisition and everything to do with Cody Franson.

This is life for the injured in hockey who are apparently overpaid. The Maple Leafs have gone to school and had success in finding the throw-ins they could afford that others were willing to give away.

They got Lombardi from Nashville because the Predators couldn’t afford the uncertainty of having a $3.5-million player who may not contribute because of concussions.

They were so concerned they were willing to give Franson, the young defenceman who has been up and down, away for free so long as the team taking it was willing to eat the Lombardi contract and live with the great unknown that went along with it.

The Leafs have been down this route before — successfully.

Last season, in what now has the look of a deal for the ages, the Leafs picked up the somewhat injured and the definitely overpaid (at the time) Joffrey Lupul, who was awarded first-line money but was used on Anaheim’s fourth line.

That Lupul has emerged as the all-star of consequence and quite likely the Leafs’ best player was never expected. Just as David Poile, the Nashville general manager, wasn’t sure Lombardi would ever play again when he sent the speedy forward to Toronto.

When the Leafs acquired Lombardi, the first thing Brian Burke told him was to take the time he needed to get ready. There was no timetable. There was no pressure. There was only hope.

Concussions have a mind — and a time frame — of their own.

“It was important for me to hear that,” Lombardi said. “I thought if I could get better, I’d fit in.”

He just didn’t know he would begin the season playing. And playing, frankly, may have been something of a stretch.

Lombardi began the season in the Leafs lineup. His legs went one way, his hands went another. He looked like too many concussed players look upon their return: Lost.

He was always known as a player who could skate and whose hands didn’t always keep up with his magnificent speed.

Only lately, it all seems to be coming together for Lombardi at a time when the Leafs require it the most. That Lombardi scored the first and third goals in the ever-important win over the New York Islanders Monday night — and when was the last time you could call a win over the Islanders important? — speaks about the hope for the second half in Toronto.

While Phil Kessel may have scored the most important goal Monday on a setup from Lupul, it has been clear lately that the Leafs need offence from other places. They only scored once against Montreal on Saturday, twice against Ottawa in a home loss, shut out by the Rangers at home the Saturday before. If Lupul and Kessel don’t do it they need others to chip in.

And even Lombardi wasn’t sure how much he could chip in, let alone fit in, after a frustrating season away from the game. A season with his future in doubt, and without any assurance he would ever play again.

That’s what happens when you have a brain injury, when you’re Sidney Crosby or Chris Pronger or Daniel Briere and you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Only Lombardi was never a star the way Marc Savard was a star. He was a middle-of-the-lineup player with superstar speed — an afterthought of sorts.

And for now he has found a home on an unlikely line with Tim Connolly and Nazem Kadri. An offensive place for a player, who when at his best, can contribute some offence.

Most important Monday night was the victory by the Leafs, putting nine points between Toronto and the improving Islanders. The two teams play again Tuesday, the Leafs’ last game before the all-star break. An eleven-point cushion, if possible, would all but eliminate the Islanders from their individual playoff race.

Playoffs are paramount for Lombardi, as if they’re not for every Leaf. Last year, he tasted playoffs with the ultimate in frustration in Nashville. The Predators were going places and he was just watching. He doesn’t want to watch playoffs anymore.

“I feel when I came in here the mindset here with everybody is playoffs. That’s our goal,” Lombardi said. “As an individual and as a team, this is a pretty exciting time. We just have to keep pushing for it. This is what you play for. That’s the goal this year.”


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