With 10 points in 12 games, and the Toronto Maple Leafs starting the season 10-4-0, forward Dave Bolland was enjoying a memorable first month with his hometown team after winning the Stanley Cup twice with the Chicago Blackhawks. Then came Nov. 2, when Vancouver Canucks forward Zack Kassian accidentally stepped on Bolland's left leg, leaving Bolland with a lacerated tendon in his ankle.
Bolland hasn't played since, but that could be about to change.
After missing 56 games, Bolland could return Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, CBC). With goaltender Jonathan Bernier also possible to return after missing three games with a groin injury, Toronto could be getting healthy at the right time. Having lost three straight, they certainly can use both players.
"It's a critical time. [Stanley Cup] Playoffs coming," Bernier said after practicing Friday. "I just want to make sure we're 100 percent [healthy]. My body feels pretty good to get on the ice."
That assessment from Bernier was one of a number of encouraging moments from practice.
There was the sight of Bolland skating on a line between David Clarkson and Mason Raymond, two of Toronto's other offseason acquisitions. After more than four months out of the lineup, it's clear Bolland is ready to get back to competing.
"That first shift will be a little tough," he said. "I think you can do enough bag skating and work on the ice, but it's a little different when you go on the ice with guys you don't like and guys who want to hurt you when you go in the corner. I'm really sick of skating after practice with the assistant coaches."
Neither Bolland nor Bernier are definite to play Saturday, but it was apparent each will be back sooner rather than later. It's a return Bolland is anticipating after what was shaping up to be a triumphant homecoming transformed into a lengthy challenge to return.
"It's been a long run," Bolland said. "It wasn't fun for myself, getting the injury and doing all the rehab in the training room. I was in here early, staying late and doing all the little things to get back. It's a grind. You don't really feel the excitement the guys feel when they win or when a guy scores the goal or does the little things to help the team win. You're sort of in the background. It's good to see everything going upwards."
The Maple Leafs also were buoyed by an appearance by defenseman Paul Ranger, who posed for the team photo two days after a check into the boards from forward Alex Killorn of the Tampa Bay Lightning left him motionless on the ice. Ranger was taken off on a stretcher and transported to the hospital.
Ranger didn't care to recall the details of the hit but was happy to discuss the family and friends who reached out.
"I'm thankful. It was pretty scary. I'm OK," said Ranger, who is out indefinitely. "I just remember thinking, 'I'm going to be OK. I don't know what's going on but I can move my legs, I can feel my hands, I can feel my feet. I'm going to be OK no matter what.'"
Ranger's encouraging words and Bolland's imminent return could give Toronto the boost it needs as it hopes to retain its hold on an Eastern Conference playoff spot. The Maple Leafs enter the weekend holding the first Eastern Conference wild card, three points behind the Canadiens for third place in the Atlantic Division. However, Toronto has two regulation wins in 11 games since play resumed following the break for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. But the key to its run toward the playoffs will be Bernier, whose 1,509 saves in his first season in Toronto ranked third in the NHL entering Friday.
"It's tough to watch your team lose," Bernier said. "We've just got to refocus. We're not in a bad spot. We're still looking in and we have to stay positive as a team."