-- Opening night is a special feeling for just about any NHL player, but it will be a lot more so for Matthew Lombardi
of the Toronto Maple Leafs
and Max Pacioretty
of the Montreal Canadiens
when the Original Six rivals face off Thursday night at the Air Canada Centre.
Lombardi will be playing his first regular season game in nearly a year, having fully recovered from the concussion he suffered in the second game of last season while playing with the Nashville Predators
. Pacioretty will also be making a comeback from a cracked vertebra in his neck and a concussion suffered last March in a game against the Boston Bruins
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Both players said Thursday that they are excited to get this game started, but not at all nervous about how their respective injuries will hold up.
"There's been so much that's happened in the last year, but it was a bit of a shock this summer," Lombardi said of his offseason trade from Nashville to Toronto. "But honestly, I'm so excited to be here with all the history behind this team and the organization. They believed in me, that's why they went out and got me. They knew I could come back and I'm happy they took a chance on me. As it turns out, I'm healthy and I'm really happy."
Lombardi will be centering a fourth line with Jay Rosehill
and Mike Brown
on his wings. With free agent acquisition Tim Connolly
injured, Lombardi's presence in the lineup is a welcome addition for coach Ron Wilson.
"I expect him to bring speed, help on the penalty kill," Wilson said. "I'm going to see how he's adjusting to game speed. He's only had one exhibition game under his belt. If he can take more, I'd love to move him higher up in the lineup but I want to let him catch up. He admits himself he has a lot of rust."
Lombardi says after months of frustration, something clicked in July and he began making progress so rapidly that he's able to suit up for this game when that would have been unthinkable as recently as June.
"After I got traded, that wasn't the reason but I really started taking steps forward in July," Lombardi said. "In August, things started moving much quicker, I had more progress in that month than I did in the 10 previous months combined. That's why I was able to start training camp going at about 90 percent, and by the end I could take part in pretty much everything. It really moved quickly over the last six weeks."
As for Pacioretty, he's been medically cleared for months and had the benefit of a full slate of preseason games to get any rust that may have been lingering out of his system. Still, he says opening night takes on a very special meaning for him.
"It's finally here," he said. "Everyone's really excited. It's going to be tough to get some sleep today because everyone's really itching at it, but me especially. I'm ready to prove to people I can play like last year and even better."
Pacioretty scored 12 goals and 7 assists in his final 26 games before his season came to a crashing halt on March 8 when he suffered a serious injury against the Bruins. Pacioretty said that night is far in his rear view mirror.
"I don't have any doubts right now with my neck or my head," he said. "I'm just looking forward to playing the way I know I can."
The game will also feature an NHL debut on both sides that came a bit out of nowhere.
For the Leafs, defenseman Jake Gardiner
will play alongside Mike Komisarek
on the third pairing, bulldozing his way into the lineup with a strong camp that -- for now -- has bumped newly acquired Cody Franson
to the press box.
"It's finally here. Everyone's really excited. It's going to be tough to get some sleep today because everyone's really itching at it, but me especially. I'm ready to prove to people I can play like last year and even better.." -- Max Pacioretty
Gardiner's parents came in from his native Minnesota to witness the big moment, and he says his father John is probably more excited about his debut than he is.
"I'm not that emotional a guy," Gardiner said. "I'm really excited, trust me, but I don't show it as much as some people do."
On the Canadiens' side, Swiss defenseman Rafael Diaz also leapfrogged his fellow countryman Yannick Weber
and Russian newcomer Alexei Emelin
to win a spot on Montreal's third pairing.
"It's unbelievable," a beaming Diaz said. "I can't believe it right now that I'm about to play for the Montreal Canadiens
Diaz remembers watching Islanders captain Mark Streit
make his NHL debut with the Canadiens in 2005 in the locker room of his hometown EV Zug club in the Swiss-A League.
"I saw that back home and I had that same goal," Diaz said. "I think there are others back home who want to reach that goal."
And those others back in Switzerland will likely be watching Diaz on Thursday night to serve as inspiration.