TORONTO -- "Jake Gardiner is free," exclaimed Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Mike Komisarek as he walked by the throng of reporters assembled in front of Jake Gardiner's dressing room stall.
Gardiner smirked a little during that moment but was otherwise serious as he answered question after question regarding his return to the Maple Leafs lineup when they face the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday at Air Canada Centre.
Gardiner has been under the spotlight in Toronto ever since his agent, Ben Hankinson, tweeted the words, "#FreeJakeGardiner" after a Maple Leafs loss to the Winnipeg Jets over one week ago.
Defense - TOR
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 0 | PTS: 0
SOG: 4 | +/-: -1
After playing in two games with Toronto, Gardiner was sent to the American Hockey League on Jan. 25, and remained there ever since. One season prior, he was a regular in the Maple Leafs' lineup, recording 30 points in 75 games and averaging 21:35 in ice time as a rookie.
"Right now I'm kind of getting a second chance, so I have to make sure I play well and help get this team a win," Gardiner said. "I feel like I have definitely gotten better each game [in the AHL]. I still think I have a long way to go to be where I want to be. Whether it's every game or every practice, I want to keep getting better."